Political campaigns seldom turn on issues of science, technology, research, and student achievement that are the lifeblood of engineering educators. So it’s no surprise that when science has come up in the race for the 2012 Republican nomination, it has mainly appeared in rhetoric geared toward conservative activists who predominate in early primary voting. To wit: Most of the seven GOP contenders who were still in the race as of early December are either skeptical of global warming or doubt that humans are the main cause. Several appear not to accept evolution. Some oppose government funding for scientific research; others support it only for defense or commercial use. What does all this mean? Michael Lubell, who follows science funding in Washington for the American Physical Society, a physicists’ group, says little of real substance has emerged. He adds, “I don’t expect to hear anything more until it becomes clear who the [GOP] candidate will be. It doesn’t factor into the primary elections very much.”
Whoever wins the party’s nod will need to engage in a fuller debate. The nominee faces an incumbent president, Barack Obama, who has made government-backed research and development the linchpin of his long-term economic growth strategy – particularly energy R&D and advanced manufacturing – and championed science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education at all levels.
The stakes are high, with deep cuts looming in 2013 in both domestic and defense spending that could pit science agencies and federal student aid against favored domestic programs and defense research against big-ticket weaponry. The nation’s energy policy, embracing every sector from transportation to manufacturing, nuclear power, agriculture, and oil and gas exploration, also hangs in the balance.
Are Republicans ready for this conversation? More than you might expect from the primary campaign, it turns out – at least in several cases. Here is a snapshot gleaned from their positions and records in office up to this point. It’s presented with a strong word of caution. Candidates low in the polls as this is written – pre-Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary – could shoot to the top before the South Carolina and Florida primaries later in January. Others prominently mentioned here could plummet or even be forced out of the race.
Editor’s Note: Since this article appeared in print, both Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman have ended their campaigns.
During the current campaign, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has trod carefully on hot-button science issues. He says both evolution and creationism should be taught in schools. And he has compared today’s global warming alarms to those in the 1970s predicting a new Ice Age. His joint commercial with current Speaker Nancy Pelosi to raise concern about climate change? “The single dumbest thing I’ve done in recent years,” he now says.
As a lawmaker and entrepreneur, he has consistently supported federal funding for scientific research, including basic research. Yet while he displays a fascination with technology, in 1995 he helped shut down the Office of Technology Assessment, a low-key congressional advisory agency of experts that was on the GOP target list for ways Congress could show it was cutting its own spending.
Both during and after his stint as House speaker, he several times called for doubling federal spending on science for the coming decade. He pushed for sharp increases in the budgets of the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, served on the influential Defense Science Board, and consistently supported increased funding for federal STEM programs.
In 2004, Gingrich created his own nonprofit group, the Center for Health Transformation, to underwrite the adoption of new technology by medical institutions. (He also runs a for-profit business with the same name.) He has helped drum up research money for diabetes and other major diseases, and served as a regent of the National Library of Medicine, and as a member of the National Commission for Quality Long-Term Care.
In line with many high-tech entrepreneurs and research universities, Gingrich supports eliminating the current cap on the number of visas that the United States can grant foreign researchers under the H-1B program.
Romney, too, has spent the primary campaign hedging on politically charged science questions. “I believe God is intelligent, and I believe he designed the creation,” he says carefully. “And I believe he used the process of evolution to create the human body.”
On climate change, he says he believes that the world “is getting warmer,” although “I can’t prove that.” He adds, “I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans,” and opposes large federal efforts to mitigate it. “What I’m not willing to do is spend trillions of dollars on something I don’t know the answer to.”
Romney started to build a strong pro-science record early on in his four-year term as governor of Massachusetts, home to premier research universities and high-tech firms. He publicly supported embryonic stem cell research, putting him at odds with right-to-life conservatives, helped negotiate a regional cap-and-trade compact, and proffered his own greenhouse gas reduction plan. He consistently supported state funding for basic research and energy technology and bolstered math and science in public schools. And he frequently appeared on campuses to encourage more technological research.
He also supported boosting math and science education in public schools, backing legislation that would have added 1,000 new math and science teachers and required schools to offer Advanced Placement classes in those subjects.
But Romney shifted ground midway through his term as he prepared to compete for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. In 2005, he vetoed legislation authorizing embryonic stem cell research, saying it “crosses the line.” The state legislature later overrode him. Romney also reversed course on joining the regional cap-and-trade plan that he’d helped put together. And he essentially abandoned his own plan for reducing greenhouse gases. He also began lacing his rhetoric on issues such as evolution, global warming, and stem cell research with qualifiers.
The Texas governor has said he’d “substantially increase” government funding for research, but what he’s talked about so far primarily involves defense-related projects and efforts to develop technologies for commercial use. Fundamental research rarely comes up.
Perry’s 11 years as governor show he clearly grasps the importance of Texas’s growing high-tech industry and the state’s position as one of the world’s leading centers of disease research and treatment. In 2005, he helped create the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, which has given some $360 million in grants to companies and schools for research, product development, and recruitment of scientists. Last year, he established the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which has plans to award some $3 billion in research grants. Despite conservative opposition, he ordered mandatory vaccinations of girls to prevent human papillomavirus, which has been shown to lead to cervical cancer.
But little of the money he has doled out has gone to university-based pure research. Texas falls in the middle of the pack in overall R&D spending, and less than 5 percent of that is devoted to basic research, according to National Science Foundation data. Critics have charged that many recipients of grants from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund have made sizable contributions to Perry’s campaign.
As governor, Perry has had rocky relations with some university presidents. Early on, he backed a plan that would have separated universities’ research activities from teaching efforts and sought to measure professors’ productivity and tie their pay to their performance. But he hasn’t pursued it, and many consider the initiative dead.
On evolution, he describes himself as “a firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect” — leaving little room for Darwin. On climate change, he has said, “There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects” — and that their views are being challenged “almost weekly or even daily.”
The former Utah governor sounds downright aghast at the antiscience image fellow candidates have been projecting. “When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said ... I think we find ourselves ... in a losing position,” Huntsman told ABC News in August. He succinctly Tweeted his own views: “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming—call me crazy.” He describes himself as a “passionate” supporter of stem cell research, including some involving human embryos.
As governor from 2005 through August 2009, Huntsman backed government funding for research. He calls this “the most fundamental of all issues for government,” saying it will ultimately help provide answers to America’s most critical problems while spawning jobs and economic success.
Huntsman signed the Western Climate Initiative, in which Utah joined with other states in setting targets for cutting the production of greenhouse gases. He briefly endorsed a cap-and-trade plan for reining in carbon emissions, but has since reversed himself, contending that such schemes are unworkable and too costly.
No stranger to scientific research, Huntsman has been active in his billionaire family’s substantial efforts to underwrite cancer research and treatment (under the Huntsman Foundation and the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah).
The Texas congressman’s budget-balancing blueprint, “A Plan to Restore America,” proposes eliminating entirely the Departments of Energy, Commerce, Interior, Education, and Housing and Urban Development. That would kill off DOE’s $5 billion Office of Science, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ($4.5 billion), the National Institute of Standards and Technology ($750 million), the U.S. Geological Survey ($1.1 billion), and all agricultural research.
Paul also would trim some $7 billion from the budget of the National Institutes of Health. His proposal doesn’t specify cuts for the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, but its emphasis on spending cuts throughout would seem to leave few agency budgets intact. In late 2010, he voted against reauthorizing the America COMPETES Act, which paved the way for federal grants totaling $45 billion for scientific research over three years. As a physician, he obviously possesses scientific knowledge, though as with other candidates, his views have shifted. In 2008, he said, “Human activity probably does play a role” in global warming. More recently, he called the science behind that view a “hoax.”
The Minnesota congresswoman and onetime Tea Party favorite doesn’t mention science much in her campaign appearances. One televised comment drew widespread derision: She reported being told by a mother that an HPV vaccination had caused her daughter’s mental retardation. She disses evolution, opposes spending for efforts to deal with climate change, and is against allowing embryonic stem cell research.
In 2007, Bachmann voted against legislation that raised the maximum Pell grant and cut the interest rates on student loans, saying the program “fails students and taxpayers with gimmicks, hidden costs, and poorly targeted aid.” The bill later became law. Like Ron Paul, she opposed reauthorization of America COMPETES.
As a senator, Rick Santorum supported government funding for research, but primarily for defense-related projects.
In 1998, he pushed through a bill to keep money flowing to the Allegheny University of the Health Sciences by allowing its students to continue receiving federal loans even though the school’s parent company was bankrupt. He has called the whole climate change debate “junk science.” In 2006, he wrote the foreword for a book of essays, Darwin’s Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement. He praised Johnson, sometimes called the father of the movement, for helping promote leaders in the cause of “scientific renewal.”
Art Pine, a longtime Washington correspondent for several national newspapers, is now a freelance writer.