It took more than a month, but President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney have both answered a list of the "top American science questions" posed by thousands of U.S. scientists in July. The 14 questions illuminate some of the candidates' views on issues like climate change, education and public health, which receive little attention on the campaign trail despite mounting urgency.
Many of the answers are predictable, but there are some highlights. Romney pivots from his recent coyness about climate change, for instance, back to the firmer stance he took in 2011. He has said lately that "we don't know what's causing climate change" — and mocked Obama last week for wanting to "slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet" — but he now writes that "my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences."
Obama also calls global warming "one of the biggest issues of this generation," and points to his administration's success in establishing new vehicle-emissions standards, making "unprecedented investments in clean energy" and reducing U.S. reliance on foreign oil. He also mentions a proposal to limit carbon emissions from power plants, but doesn't repeat his 2008 call for a national cap-and-trade law — probably because the concept already brought him a legislative defeat in the Senate.
According to Shawn Otto of ScienceDebate.org, the group that compiled the questions, neither candidate's answers include enough specific ideas. Romney says he supports "robust government funding for research" and "a new wave of investment in nuclear power," but mainly focuses on criticizing Obama's efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Obama says the U.S. is "showing international leadership on climate change," but offers only a generic acknowledgement that global climate talks are stalled, adding that "there is still more to be done." This leads Otto to bemoan both candidates' refusal to participate in a televised science debate.
"While the candidates' answers provide important insights on a variety of key topics, they also illustrate just why a debate on these critical policy issues is so important," Otto says in a press release. "Some of the questions aren't fully answered when they become politically difficult and others could really benefit from followup discussion, for example to hear what ideas the candidates have for solving problems, like climate change, that cross national boundaries."
Romney begins his answer about climate change by stating "I am not a scientist myself," but Otto sees that as disingenuous. "Candidates readily debate jobs and the economy even though they are not economists," Otto says. "They debate foreign policy and military intervention even though they are not diplomats or generals; they debate faith and values even though they are not priests or pastors. They should also be comfortable debating the top American science questions that affect all voters' lives."
That apparently won't happen, though, so we're left to parse the candidates' written responses. This echoes the results of a similar effort in 2008, when Obama and John McCain both submitted answers to ScienceDebate.org but declined a live debate. Nonetheless, as scientific issues grow increasingly important to U.S. voters, Otto says his organization is making progress in forcing presidential candidates to keep up. "They're stuck in 20th-century thinking," he says. "It's taking them time to realize we're in a new century — the century of science — and that 85 percent of likely voters want them to be debating these topics. Every cycle we're making progress."