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The candidates on science

Science / Comstock / Corbis

The latest roundup of the presidential candidates' stands (and non-stands) on science-related issues such as stem cells, climate change and energy policy illustrates why a debate focusing on those issues is so needed … and so unlikely to happen. Some hopefuls have been ducking so much you'd think they were out hunting with Dick Cheney. Nevertheless, analysts have come up with bits of data that run counter to the conventional wisdom.

For the most part, the candidates' stands on the issues have to be gleaned from sheafs of policy papers as well as past statements from office-holders and reassurances from advisers. That's how the journal Science put together this week's rundowns for nine top-tier presidential candidates (Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson on the Democratic side, as well as Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson for the GOP).

"Although none of the campaigns afforded us direct access to the candidates themselves - a telling indicator of the importance of science in the campaign, perhaps - we've talked to some of their advisers, as well as to colleagues, friends and foes alike, who are familiar with their careers," Jeffrey Marvis, deputy news editor at Science, wrote in the leadoff to the journal's 10-page special report.

Some candidates were more forthcoming than others: Clinton has put the most effort into developing an overarching science policy, highlighted by her Sputnik-anniversary speech in Washington last October. In contrast, Giuliani's campaign "successfully discouraged key advisers from speaking to Science about specific issues," the journal noted. Thompson's aides were said to have declined repeated requests to discuss science and technology issues in detail.

Science isn't the only publication tracking down the candidates' views on science and technology:

The usual political spin is that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to call for tighter greenhouse-gas limits, more federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and more government support for basic research. But the analyses provide a more nuanced picture.

Republican McCain, for example, rates among the "most knowledgeable" candidates on the climate change issue, one expert told Science - and McCain turned up the heat on the Bush administration as a result. He's also taking advice from a former Clinton administration officials on energy security, and favors expanded stem cell research (although he draws the line on therapeutic cloning).

Giuliani is also more open to embryonic stem cell research, while Romney has distanced himself from the record he built on stem cells as well as greenhouse-gas limits during the early part of his term as Massachusetts governor. "His two-year honeymoon with the research community ended abruptly in 2005 ... just as Romney's presidential campaign was getting started," Science's Andrew Lawler wrote.

Even Huckabee, who has taken some knocks from the scientific mainstream for rejecting evolutionary theory and opposing embryonic stem-cell research, gets a somewhat softer image. Science summarizes the approach he took as Arkansas' governor thusly: "Take a strong stance, but don't impose your views on others."

Huckabee gets positive marks for his actions on health policy and research, but the environmental record is more mixed. He has said doing more about climate change was part of being "good stewards of this Earth," but has also referred to environmentalists as "wackos."

On the Democratic side, much has been made of Obama's statement that money should be diverted from NASA to help fund his proposed education programs - but on the Space Politics blog, Jeff Foust passes along a campaign clarification aimed at reassuring space advocates. This wouldn't be the first time Obama revised and extended his remarks on science-related issues: The Science report noted that Obama appeared to weave back and forth on the issue of liquefied coal as an energy source.

Biomedical researchers, meanwhile, expressed some reservations about the tactics Edwards used as a trial lawyer in a series of multimillion-dollar medical malpractice suits. "I know people who would never vote for him" because of that baggage, Nobel-winning biochemist Peter Agre told Science.

The main theme of all the roundups, however, is that a scientific perspective has been sorely lacking in the campaign up to this point. Now that the Iowa caucuses are officially kicking off the political season, it's time for that to change.

"Now is the time for the research community to catch the attention of the next president of the United States of America," Nature declares in an editorial this week.

Science's editor-in-chief, Donald Kennedy, notes that this year's presidential canididates aren't shy when it comes to talking about their religious beliefs - and then adds a twist:

"Given this new focus on religious disclosure, what does this U.S. election have to do with science? Everything. The candidates should be asked hard questions about science policy, including questions about how those positions reflect belief. What is your view about stem cell research, and does it relate to a view of the time at which human life begins? Have you examined the scientific evidence regarding the age of Earth? Can the process of organic evolution lead to the production of new species, and how? Are you able to look at data on past climates in search of inferences about the future of climate change? ...

"... We need to know the candidates' qualifications for understanding and judging science, and for speaking intelligently about science and technology to the leaders of other nations in planning our collective global future. I don't need them to describe their faith; that's their business and not mine. But I do care about their scientific knowledge and how it will inform their leadership."

At least two broad-based efforts are trying to shine a light on on science and technology policy: For months, Scientists and Engineers for America has been gearing up to keep track of candidates' positions on key issues, not only on the presidential level but for all federal elective offices. Science Debate 2008's call for a full-bore debate on science and technology is quickly picking up traction, but that gets us back to the basic question: What will it take for the presidential campaigns to focus on scientific perspectives?

Maybe it's just too early for the campaigns to sound so, um, presidential. We're about to begin what's sure to be a bruising primary season, and the candidates are likely to be much more focused on securing their party base - people who generally aren't as concerned about the niceties of nuclear power and nuclear transfer. There'll be time enough to reach out to the geeks in lab coats after the convention. At least that's how I imagine the strategists are thinking.

What do you think? Feel free to pass along your perspective - or your pointers to policy clues - as a comment below.