What We Didn't See In The First Presidential Debate

For the 64 percent of us who are worried about climate change, and wish to see it as a central point in the presidential debates, there was a sliver of hope last night.
09/27/2016 06:55 am ET Updated Sep 27, 2016
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For the 64 percent of us who are worried about climate change, and wish to see it as a central point in the presidential debates, there was a sliver of hope last night. In response to a policy question on economics and clean energy, Hillary Clinton decided to bring up the subject herself and said of climate change “Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax, perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it’s real”. Trump then denied saying that, even though his twitter feed shows otherwise.

But that was it. That was all we saw of the science of climate change being debated, or of science at all, during one of the most watched presidential debates ever. In 2012, both candidates and the moderators totally ignored the topic. We can’t afford to set science aside this time around.

Where We Are

Every even-numbered year, the National Science Board is required to produce an account to the President and Congress called the Science and Engineering Indicators Report. The SEI report serves as an assessment of the state of science and engineering in the U.S. as compared to the rest of the world. According to this year’s data, we still lead the world in advanced degrees in science and engineering, published discoveries, and research and development, but the report also shows advances from Asia (mainly Chinese) challenging that leadership.

The two nominees are running for the most powerful political office in the world. In 2016, how can we consider voting in a candidate without demanding clearly stated positions on the important scientific issues in a televised debate?

Within the realm of science are gravely important policy matters which, if handled incorrectly, can be more damaging to the national and global security than any economic or foreign policy decision. Some of the problems we need to address are on time-scale too large for us to appreciate intuitively. Nevertheless, we will have to figure out concrete solutions soon, and we should clearly know where each candidate stands on the science.

Here are some topics that should be central in the upcoming debates:

Climate Change

In December of last year, 195 countries adopted the first legally binding global climate deal. President Obama and Chinese Pr
Daniel Parks
In December of last year, 195 countries adopted the first legally binding global climate deal. President Obama and Chinese President Xi both ratified the agreement earlier this month.

Arguably just as important a national security risk as ISIS, if not more so, climate change was completely glossed over during the Securing America portion of the debate. Last week, the National Intelligence Council released a report outlining the ways in which climate change threatens our national security. This includes threats to the stability of high-risk countries, increased migration, heightened political and economic tensions, adverse effects on food pricing and availability, a directly related rise in deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease as a result of extreme heat, as well as an expected increase in vector and water-borne diseases.

In her acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton has said that she believes “that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs." On the other hand, Donald Trump has characterized global warming as “bullshit” and a “hoax” created by the Chinese (later claiming it was a joke), has called for abolishing the EPA, and withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty.

For the record: If you’re still on the fence about climate change or would like to learn more, NASA artfully outlines much of the evidence here.

STEM Education

While progress has been made in the representation of women in most areas of the STEM workforce, two areas where they are not
Joseph McKinley
While progress has been made in the representation of women in most areas of the STEM workforce, two areas where they are notably underrepresented are engineering (15%) and computer and mathematical sciences (25%).

In the most recent cross-national assessment, out of 64 countries, the U.S. ranked 27th in science and 35th in math. According to the latest data from Pew Research Center, American students are scoring slightly higher in math assessments today than twenty years ago, but still lag behind the top 10 countries internationally. While significant progress has been made in increasing the number of women in STEM, there still are notable field-specific disparities with minority women.

Donald Trump told ScienceDebate that the government should “make sure that educational opportunities are available for everyone” using the STEM programs currently in place. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he vowed to slash funding for the Department of Education. Coinciding with his endorsement, Trump said he plans to involve Ben Carson in education policy.

Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate who doesn’t believe in evolution, has said that Americans were better educated in the 1830s than they are now, and that an AP history course will make students who completed it “ready to sign up for ISIS”.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has made it a goal to push for an increase in computer science programs for every student in America. She’s also pledged to support public and charter schools “which have demonstrated success at engaging underrepresented populations in science and technology.”

Mental Health

Mental illness manifests in many ways. Some of the most commonly known forms are depression, anxiety, bipolar mood disorder,
Airman 1st Class Devin N. Boyer
Mental illness manifests in many ways. Some of the most commonly known forms are depression, anxiety, bipolar mood disorder, autism, and eating disorders.

Unfortunately, the discussion of mental health in America seems to have creepingly become a topic discussed only in the context of gun control debates. While causing extreme suffering to many families and costing the economy hundreds of billions of dollars annually, mental illnesses remain some of the most stigmatized diseases in our society. They affect roughly one in five Americans, and at great economic and emotional cost, making this a topic that should certainly come up in the debates.

Last month, Hillary Clinton’s campaign set out a comprehensive mental health agenda promising to: increase brain and behavioral research, enforce mental health parity, and promote early diagnosis and intervention. The campaign’s platform has been described as a “blow to mental health stigma”, as it emphasizes the need to treat mental and physical health with equal attention.

On his website, Trump says “We need to expand treatment programs, because most people with mental health problems aren’t violent, they just need help. But for those who are violent, a danger to themselves or others, we need to get them off the street before they can terrorize our communities.”

Although the Trump campaign has no formal plan for healthcare reform, virtually all (and it isn’t much) that was said on mental health policy comes from the Second Amendment rights portion of his platform.

A Prescription For Disaster

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan noted the trends in politics and the role that science played in the public eye:

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

In the 21st Century, “I’m not a scientist” should no longer be a tolerable answer on science-related policy.

We expect politicians with no experience in foreign policy or national security to develop informed positions on those subjects. Health and science issues should be treated in the same way.

In a recent report, world leaders’ fear of a Trump administration is helping the UN Secretary General urge enough countries to ratify the Paris deal, so that it can enter full force by the end of the year. The world is watching these debates closely, and we still have two more coming up. Let’s bring these issues to the forefront, and not repeat the mistake we made in 2012.

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