Thomas R. O'Donnell

Science marches on – with some conspicuous absences

In Government, STEM on April 9, 2018 at 7:42 am
Woman holds a sign saying "Empirical Data Trumps Imperial Alt-Facts" at the 2017 March for Science Iowa.

A pointed sign from the 2017 March for Science Iowa.

Plans are shaping up for the 2018 version of the March for Science Iowa, a more overtly political version of last year’s event, when more than 3,000 Iowans flooded the Capitol grounds.

With elections coming up, organizers (including your humble correspondent) have invited candidates to appear on Saturday (the event starts with the march at around 1:00, followed by candidate forums and speeches at 2:00) to detail their views on publicly supported research, science education and evidence-based policy.

The march is nonpartisan: We want to hear from politicians and candidates from both parties. But it is not nonpolitical: We demand that our elected officials and contenders uphold science.

We invited candidates for governor, the Third Congressional District, agriculture secretary and secretary of state. Most will attend.

But only from one party. Guess which.

For some reason, Republicans seem allergic to the issue of science. Not one of the party’s candidates accepted the invitation. Gov. Kim Reynolds’ scheduler replied that she was booked that day. (In fairness, her website says requests filed less than four weeks in advance are unlikely to be approved. Our invitation went in just a couple days into that window.) Third District Rep. David Young’s office first wanted to know what kinds of questions he would get. Then he declined.

Secretary of State Paul Pate (hey, that rhymes!) gave no reason for declining. Recently appointed Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said he had a previous engagement. His primary challenger, Dan Zumbach, didn’t respond to an emailed request.

UPDATE on April 10: We also have invited the other Republican candidates for agriculture secretary: Ray Gaesser, Craig Lang and Chad Ingels. So far, we have received no replies.

Meanwhile, I also invited the Polk County Republican Party (three times) to have a voter registration table. Other than asking me to send information via email, I have not gotten a response. Their Democratic counterparts have indicated they’re likely to be there.

Again, in fairness, three Democratic candidates also declined, including candidates for governor (I hate the word gubernatorial) Fred Hubbell (prior engagement) and Ross Wilburn. The remaining four candidates – Nate Boulton, Cathy Glasson, Andy McGuire and John Norris – will speak, a nice slate for voters to hear from.

Democratic secretary of state candidate Jim Mowrer said he has a commitment elsewhere that afternoon, but his primary opponent, Deidre DeJear, and Libertarian Jules Ofenbakh will take questions in a forum, along with Tim Gannon, the Democratic candidate for agriculture secretary.

UPDATE on April 11: Chad Ingels, a Republican candidate for agriculture secretary, agreed to participate – our first GOP candidate.

Meanwhile, every Democrat still in the race for Third District Congress will be there: Cindy Axne, Eddie Mauro and Pete D’Alessandro. The Green Party’s Paul Knupp (who switched from the Democratic primary) also will attend.

The schedule at this point (and everything is in flux) calls for a question and answer forum starting at 2 (after the march) with candidates for secretary of agriculture and secretary of state. Nate Boulton will speak next (he had a small window in which to appear), then we’ll have a Q&A forum with the Third District candidates. At 4 the remaining candidates for governor will speak.

So, what’s up with the Republicans? Reynolds, particularly, has held herself out as a supporter of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, going back to her days as Terry Branstad’s lieutenant. The STEM Advisory Council has done some good work in bolstering science and engineering education in the state, including financing initiatives like FIRST programs in schools and 4-H clubs. (We’ve invited the council to have a table at the march and officials are interested. That’s good news.)

Branstad (and presumably Reynolds) also facilitated the state’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, which specify lessons on conservative hot-button issues like climate change and evolution.

While much of this work is directed at education (and creating a savvy workforce for the state’s businesses), this is a record Reynolds can brag about. Yet she’s declined to appear twice at rallies in support of science.

Some liberals have strange ideas about science, questioning whether genetically modified organisms are safe to eat, vaccines are safe for kids and glyphosate is safe to use.

The Republican Party, however, has a voting base that has nearly made climate change denial a litmus test for office. It has an evangelical wing that wants intelligent design taught alongside evolution in public schools – or wants evolution removed from curricula altogether. Candidates who publicly contradict those views could alienate those activist supporters.

Perhaps Reynolds and other GOP candidates want to avoid defending a water quality bill that is a half measure at best and disregards science by failing to include monitoring. Maybe they don’t want to have to answer questions about a Republican Congress and president that are stripping science-based regulations and removing government scientists or ignoring their research results. They would have to defend a U.S. Department of Agriculture that has sided with agribusiness over science.

And yet, Young and other Congressional Republicans (but not Rod Blum or Steve King) can tout a big boost in federal support for science and research in the latest federal budget package. This is good news for public health, clean energy production, the climate and agriculture, if the Trump administration can be trusted to faithfully execute the law.

It’s just unfortunate that it comes on top of an unnecessary and top-heavy tax cut that will drive the deficit beyond anything Republicans criticized Obama over.

Forget that for now. Saturday is for supporting science and emphasizing to elected officials and candidates how important it is to a healthy populace, a clean environment and an informed citizenry. Despite my criticisms, I hope all Republicans who agree with that agenda will join us.

March for science. Vote for science.

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