Thomas R. O'Donnell

Putting science on the Iowa presidential caucus campaign agenda

In Government on April 24, 2019 at 11:13 am
The science commandments, from a 2017 March for Science Iowa participant: Thou shalt: Question, Research, Hypothesize, Test, Analyze, Conclude. Thou Shalt NOT: Jump to Conclusions on "Alternative Facts," Illogical arguments, Ideology instead of Reason.

The science commandments, from a 2017 March for Science Iowa participant.

For something that affects our lives in so many ways, science gets remarkably little attention when candidates at all levels – especially for president – talk to voters.

Science-based policies govern our air, water, health, food, communications – nearly everything we do, hear, see, taste and smell every day. A president’s appointees to such scientific agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy Office of Science, Agricultural Research Service and National Institutes of Health can affect our lives more deeply than Congress.

So why doesn’t science get a bigger share of a candidate’s standard campaign speech? Why don’t reporters and news anchors press them on whether they’re prepared to base energy, environmental, health and agricultural policy on scientific evidence? Why aren’t candidates announcing up front what kinds of experts they will appoint to head agencies that support research and create science-based policies?

The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Science Debate has tried to address this problem since the 2008 presidential election. It’s still working to drive discussion on these issues – including providing grants to local organizations with similar goals.

March for Science Iowa is joining in that mission with an event next month.

On Friday, May 3, MFSI and the Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication will host “Science on the Stump,” a forum to put evidence and science policy into the upper tier of campaign issues. At 3:30 p.m. in Sussman Theater in Drake’s Olmsted Center, scientists, activists and experts will discuss the science-related issues that are uppermost in Iowans’ minds – even if some may not realize their concerns have a science foundation.

(The event happens the day before the national March for Science holds a “day of action,” highlighted by a march in New York City.)

In a second panel, Iowa political journalists will consider which presidential campaigns are focusing on science, what they’re saying, why science gets so little attention in campaigns and how citizens can push candidates on the topic.

Science Debate supports “Science on the Stump” with a significant grant. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization was founded out of frustration that candidates were saying so little about science policy. Organizers have sought to stage debates on the subject – so far, without success – but have gathered answers to questions from every major party candidate for three presidential cycles and posted them on the Science Debate website.

Science Debate’s frustrations are legitimate. For example, Grist, a website covering climate change, food, sustainability and other issues, analyzed the content of presidential debates going back to 2000. They found Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump discussed climate change for a total of five minutes and 27 seconds across their three debates, just 2 percent of the total time. (Clinton’s comments comprised most of that.) The subject wasn’t mentioned at all in the 2012 Obama-Romney debates. The high point was in 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush discussed climate change for just over 14 minutes.

March for Science Iowa (in which I am involved) also has tried to put science on the campaign front burner. We invited candidates for governor, Congress and statewide offices to speak at our April rally, but we cancelled their appearances because snow, rain and high winds were forecast. Like Science Debate, we issued questionnaires to candidates, received responses from a few and posted them on our website.

With the upcoming caucuses, Iowans once again have a chance to set the agenda for national politics. If we attend events and demand answers in great enough numbers, candidates – and the reporters covering them – will notice. We’ll force contenders to think through their positions and draw attention to these life-altering subjects.

You can help. If you’re available on the afternoon of May 3, come to Drake to indicate your interest – and perhaps even ask a question or offer a comment. There’s free food waiting at the end. If you can’t make it in person, watch the video feed on the March for Science Iowa Facebook page or Drake University’s streaming service.

I hope to see you there.

  1. […] for the upcoming campaign season – not just for president, but all offices. As I noted in my last post, these matters don’t get much attention. Climate change, for example, was barely mentioned in the […]

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