Thomas R. O'Donnell

Candidates – a few – come clean on science views

In Government on May 29, 2018 at 7:52 am
A March for Science Iowa participant holds a stick with the sign "Stick to the facts" attached to it.

March for Science Iowa organizers hope to do this in gathering information from candidates in the June 5 primary election. The photo was taken at the 2017 March for Science Iowa in Des Moines.

Apparently, it’s difficult to get candidates to reveal their views on science, research and evidence-based policy.

Weeks after sending questionnaires to candidates for several statewide Iowa offices and for Congress, March for Science Iowa organizers (including me) have received few responses.

The idea was to gather this information in one place – the MFSI website – so voters can compare stances.

I don’t know if campaigns are too busy, too understaffed or just don’t care, but at the time of this posting, only three Democrats, two Libertarians and one Green Party candidate have responded. MFSI President Kaitlin Higgins has posted their responses on the site.

The questions were designed to be open-ended and without prejudgment. The March for Science Iowa volunteers put them on the site without comment.

Stepping outside my role as a march volunteer, however, I have some thoughts on what the few candidates wrote.

The questions are part of an effort to make the March for Science a year-round campaign in support of research and evidence-based policy. We contacted every candidate who faces a primary in the races for governor, secretary of agriculture, secretary of state and the four congressional districts. The election is Tuesday, June 5.

The queries ranged from the fairly broad (“What role should peer-reviewed research serve in making state policy?”) to the specific (“What is your position on the Iowa Energy Center’s mission, management structure and funding?”).

Among the candidates for governor, Nate Boulton, a Democratic state senator from Des Moines, was the first to weigh in. Unfortunately, Boulton has ended his campaign after women came forward to accuse him of lewd behavior.

Second was Libertarian Marco Battaglia, a Des Moines businessman and journalist. Then Democrat Cathy Glasson, a Coralville nurse and union leader, and Andrea “Andy” McGuire, a doctor and health care administrator, weighed in. Democrats John Norris, Fred Hubbell and Ross Wilburn and Libertarian Jake Porter haven’t responded.

On the question of science’s role in the state’s water quality policies, the Democrats and Battaglia called for more research. Glasson and McGuire specifically mentioned increased monitoring to ensure water quality measures are working – an aspect that’s neglected in the law the Republican Legislature and Gov. Kim Reynolds passed this year.

McGuire also emphasized bringing all interests (government, farmers and city dwellers) together to seek solutions – and making the Nutrient Reduction Strategy mandatory. That won’t go over well with the Farm Bureau crowd.

On whether they would accept researchers’ findings and recommendations on water quality – even if that means more monitoring, reduced planting and mandatory actions – McGuire said she can’t speak to hypotheticals but “I will always stand on the side of scientific research and data and base my decisions on what science tells us …”

Glasson wrote, “Scientific findings from reputable and peer-reviewed sources are exactly what is required to promote dialogue to craft an appropriate set of policy options.” The state should support research and policy implementation and back short-term measures like moratoriums on concentrated animal feeding operations until policies are fully vetted. Her campaign, Glasson wrote, consults with family farmers and researchers. They have agreed the state must enforce measures already on the books, boost research support and put a moratorium on “factory farms” until fewer than 100 waterways are polluted.

All three candidates accept the evidence that human activity is changing the climate. Battaglia, in classic Libertarian fashion, called for less government intervention and for freeing the market to address the issue. That includes abolishing the renewable fuel standard that helps prop up Iowa commodity prices and ending agricultural subsidies. Again, farmers and big agriculture won’t like that. Battaglia also was the only candidate to advocate hemp farming.

Both Democrats advocated reinstating the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council to propose policies that would cut carbon emissions. McGuire adds that “the main barrier to any climate plan is political rather than technological” and pledges to push the issue.

There’s more, from how government can support scientists who speak unpopular truths to the role of science in setting policies for cannabis use and production.

I don’t know what it says about the Boulton, Glasson and McGuire campaigns that they responded to the questionnaire. I’d like to think it’s because they see science as an important part of their policies. But I suspect that it has more to do with how well organized they are or how much money they have. (On the other hand, Democrat Fred Hubbell’s campaign has the most money and he failed to respond.)

It’s unfortunate that so few candidates replied, because these are important questions. Science, research and evidence should be central considerations for any candidate or elected official, but they may not be unless voters demand it. That’s why the March for Science, nationally, and the Iowa organization are asking these questions. We’re at a disadvantage, however, as a small group fighting for attention.

The Libertarian and Green party candidates who responded have nothing to lose and perhaps have more time to reply. They also need all the attention they can get since the media typically give them little coverage.

Apart from Battaglia, the third-party candidates who responded were Libertarian Charles Aldrich, a Fourth District congressional candidate, and Paul Knupp, who switched from the Democratic primary to the Green Party ticket for the Third District.

Knupp, a minister and former hospital chaplain, supports water quality monitoring and research into solutions to Iowa’s polluted rivers and lakes. He cites his experience helping found the Iowa Green Party 34 years ago and noted that its members tested Iowa City’s water supply and released the results. He wants to ban concentrated animal feeding operations and rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, which the Trump Administration rejected. (Glasson also supported this.)

“We will set and cap emissions from factories and cars at levels scientifically recommended in the Accord,” Knupp writes – without even a trading system that allows factories to buy the right to pollute, a measure touted as using market forces to cut carbon emissions.

So, Knupp’s suggested approach relies heavily on regulation. Aldrich? Well, he has some rather different views.

On human-caused climate change? “This is a myth,” the industrial engineer from Clarion wrote. While his brief answers generally support science’s role, Aldrich pushes for cost-benefit analyses of nearly every policy and letting private enterprise provide solutions – if there’s public demand for them. Unfortunately, a hands-off market approach gave us polluted water and increased greenhouse gases. And it may be difficult to justify the short-term costs of reducing greenhouse gases against long-term catastrophic climate change predictions.

At least Aldrich’s answers won’t tax you. Most are one sentence and he didn’t answer the last five.

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