Among the possibilities that John McCain offered to those Republicans and Democrats who were looking for someone who could change the direction of that party, one that was not widely discussed but which was nevertheless significant, was the opportunity to remove the unfortunate disconnect between the current administration and the scientific community.
The administration of George W. Bush has differed qualitatively from the previous five administrations, both Republican and Democratic, in its attacks on scientific integrity, censorship of scientific information, stacking of scientific advisory committees with unqualified candidates, and outright distortion of the results of studies by government scientists. The situation was of such concern that an unprecedented collection of Nobel Laureates, National Medal of Science winners, and former Presidential Science advisors (both republican and democratic), later joined by thousands of scientists, wrote an open letter to the White House to urge a change in policy.
These issues became so widespread and well known that the journalist Chris Mooney wrote a bestselling book entitled, The Republican War on Science. I thought at the time that the title was inappropriate however. The Bush administration is not representative of all Republicans, including, for example, Ph.D. physicist and congressman Vern Ehlers, with whom others and I have worked to raise the profile of science in political discourse. Indeed, over the past half-century, Republican administrations have often been more supportive of significant scientific investments than Democratic administrations
John McCain offered hope and a new direction early on in his campaign. He had previously spoken out publicly about the need to preserve scientific integrity, for example, and criticized several actions of the Bush administration in this regard. With McCain as the Republican candidate and Obama as the Democratic candidate for President, it began to look like we might finally return to an administration that would appropriately adopt the results of science in policymaking.
Unfortunately, however, since becoming the presumptive candidate, about to become the official candidate of his party, John McCain has begun to slowly backtrack from the scientific straight-talker one hoped he would be.
Things began to look bad when McCain made a silly campaign promise: a $300 million dollar prize for new battery technology to help solve our energy crisis. If $300 million could solve our energy problems they wouldn't be problems. To develop effective new alternative energy technologies requires significant fundamental research on new materials, the kind of thing that government supported research is required for, as well as new investments in infrastructure. As has recently been pointed out, for example, our current national electric grid already cannot accommodate the influx of power that is coming in from new wind sources.
Things got worse when McCain began to advocate for offshore drilling as a way to reduce oil costs. As was well known, not only will new offshore drilling not have any impact on oil production in this country for at least a decade, but even if it does come online, the total oil production will be marginal compared to current usage, and thus the impact on the price of oil at the time will not be large.
The biggest blow to one's confidence in John McCain's commitment to sound science however came last week with his choice of running mate. Sarah Palin has not only expressed her disagreement with the entire scientific climate science community by suggesting that there is no human induced contribution to global warming, but she has also indicated in interviews that both evolution and its scientifically discredited alternative, currently called intelligent design, should be discussed in science classes. To be fair, she has not explicitly said that both should actually be a part of the curriculum, but she has not argued to the contrary either. It is easy to suspect, in spite of having a father who was a science teacher, her personal views on scientifically sound concepts like evolution and the age of the earth are similar to those of another conservative Christian governor, Mike Huckabee, whose statements on these issues during the Republican primary debates were widely derided.
On global warming, Palin's actions are eerily reminiscent of the Bush administration's cherry picking of the scientific. In a New York Times Op-ed she argued against listing polar bears as endangered species, saying her decision was based on a "comprehensive review by state officials." However a freedom of information request by Ed Steiner to see the review revealed that the officials had in fact concurred that the scientific literature indeed suggested that the polar bear population will significantly decline.
Finally, the Obama campaign has now officially responded to the request put out by various organizations, including ScienceDebate2008, to answer 14 questions on science and technology policy. John McCain's campaign has indicated they too will issue specific responses, however they have not yet done so. (It will be particularly interesting to me to see how they respond to the question of balancing belief vs scientific evidence.)
All of this puts Mr. McCain in a difficult position. If he public disavows Gov. Palin's misstatements on these issues and others he risks driving a wedge between himself and his chosen running mate. If he does not, he risks continuing or even exacerbating the unfortunate divide created by the current administration between Republicans and good science.