Thomas R. O'Donnell

In the Iowa Caucuses campaign, science voters have the power to prod candidates

In Government, STEM on June 17, 2019 at 7:10 am
Science on the Stump journalists Sarah Beckman, Douglas Burns, Brianne Pfannenstiel and Pat Rynard

Sarah Beckman of WOI-TV speaks to the audience at the March for Science Iowa Science on the Stump forum. From left, Douglas Burns, Brianne Pfannenstiel and Pat Rynard listen in. Photo by Joe Sheehan.

For Iowans who care about science – government support for research, using evidence to define policy, and things like addressing climate change and backing vaccine safety – now is the time to speak up.

The caucus campaign gives us a quadrennial opportunity to push for these goals. Candidates – and the reporters who cover them – are listening.

That was one message from Iowa journalists last month at Drake University in Des Moines. They were on the second of two panels gathered for Science on the Stump, hosted by the March for Science Iowa, a nonpartisan group that advocates for evidence-based policy and research in the public interest. I helped organize the event and previously wrote about the first forum, of scientists and science observers.

You can listen to the entire discussion on the March for Science Iowa Facebook page.

The journalists who spoke noted that Iowans often dictate the subjects candidates address when they appear in cafes, barns, auditoriums and living rooms across the state. For example, activists and interested voters have made climate change a key science-related issue.

Reporters, editors and producers also respond to voter feedback, but a lack of science expertise sometimes makes it difficult for them to sift competing claims.

Jennifer Zwagerman, recently named assistant law professor at Drake and director of its Agricultural Law Center, moderated the panel. The journalists were Sarah Beckman, executive producer at WOI-TV in West Des Moines; Douglas Burns co-owner, columnist, reporter and editor at The Carroll Times Herald; Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief politics reporter for The Des Moines Register; and Pat Rynard, founder and editor of the Iowa Starting Line political blog.

For most of us, it’s early in the presidential campaign – and even in the Iowa Caucus campaign, although the first-in-the-nation vote is less than a year away. But for the panelists, it’s already been a slog. Pfannenstiel noted that Register staff covered 42 events in April alone, recording every question (more than 300 in total) Iowans asked of candidates.

The Register’s analysis found climate change was one of the top subjects for voter questions. (Throughout the panel discussion, acceptance of climate change became something of a proxy for accepting and supporting science – and it’s a reasonable conclusion.) But there were far more “one-off” questions, as Pfannenstiel called them, that didn’t fit neatly into one category: questions about pet issues individuals have.

The message, she said, is that voters can influence what the candidates discuss. Iowans appreciate their role in the presidential selection process but may take for granted “how much we truly can drive the conversation. … Climate change was not this big of an issue” in 2015 and 2016 “and I think that’s very voter-driven.”

Beckman, the WOI-TV producer, agreed. “Voters are really driving the conversation more than I’ve seen – definitely more than I saw in 2016 and even previous times.” Part of that is organized action by groups like Citizens Climate Lobby and Bold Iowa, each of which sends activists to campaign appearances. But even among individual voters “climate change is on their minds. People are changing their behavior now more than we’ve seen” and doing things like eschewing plastic straws and foam cups, she added.

This is important. It demonstrates that average people can alter the course of a campaign and set the agenda. If we want candidates that embrace evidence and support research, we must push them to do so. We have to bring it up every chance we get with every candidate we can.

It may seem unwise to focus exclusively on a single subject, but accepting science and basing policy on solid research is fundamental to good governance in virtually every arena. Government has access to more information and research than ever on nearly every kind of policy. There is no reason not to build policies on that foundation. Otherwise, politicians will merely push their pet ideology, perhaps helping a small segment of the population while harming many others.

Science on the Stump journalists Douglas Burns, Brianne Pfannenstiel and Pat Rynard

Burns, Pfannenstiel and Rynard. Photo by Joe Sheehan.

Candidates do seem to get the message. “Climate change is at least one talking point that just about all of them hit on in their speeches,” Rynard said. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren even has a line similar to “I believe in this crazy thing called science.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has made climate change the key issue of his campaign – something that may help him lock in caucus attendees early in the process, Rynard said. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang also has focused on technology and its effect on workers. Other candidates touch on science as it connects to things like agricultural policy.

But Burns said the politician who may have brought more attention to science-oriented issues than any other isn’t even running: New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, an expansive plan that, besides eliminating carbon emissions, includes things like guaranteed jobs and health care. Voters are asking candidates whether they support the plan and about specific provisions. Rynard noted that some initially endorsed the Green New Deal but backed off when it became controversial.

Zwagerman asked whether candidates talk about science and climate change differently with rural voters than with those in the cities and whether they – or voters – bring up the subject as much.

Climate activists often have as much of a presence at rural campaign events as they do in cities, Burns said, but questions often are more specific, focusing on renewable energy, wind turbines and small plant waivers for ethanol use. There also may be more questions about concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and their environmental impact.

Candidates typically don’t change their talking points for farm-oriented audiences, Rynard said, because they’re generally speaking to faithful Democrats, given the campaign is for their caucus votes.

But many candidates also head to farms and ethanol plants to listen, Pfannenstiel said. Few are versed on rural issues and take the time to learn about the intricacies of farm policy and its impact on voters.

Journalists, too, want to learn. “Our job is to listen, not only to the candidates, but to the voters,” Beckman said. She and her fellow producers and reporters read social media comments, calls and letters. “That’s how we form a lot of our questions, especially around climate change.”

This is important, too. Voters can’t just influence what candidates discuss. They also can influence the questions reporters ask and the issues they delve into more deeply. Again, those of us who want to see science at the center of the political debate must keep pushing journalists to ask these questions.

Frankly, that was the real goal March for Science Iowa had in mind when staging the Science on the Stump event. We wanted to hear from scientists, educators and journalists, but it was more important to get reporters, editors and producers thinking about science subjects so they’re more inclined to cover them.

News consumers, in turn, must respond. Journalists track what people read on their websites, Pfannenstiel noted. “You all tell us you want broccoli, but you’re eating a lot of candy. People tell us they want policy stories, but they’re reading the horse race” articles about who’s ahead, who made an error and who insulted another candidate. Journalists are trying to make policy stories more engaging, with human-interest elements that illustrate a proposal’s impact (Rynard just added staff to his blog in an effort to do that) but we have to read them.

Those policies – especially ones related to science – are complex and test reporters’ ability to explain them. Pfannenstiel said the job is to attend campaign events and represent readers who can’t. “But it’s also to add context and clarity,” she added. “Sometimes that can be incredibly difficult for someone who studied journalism and Italian language in school. My background is not in science so I have to gain expertise in these issues and make sure I’m informed enough to ask questions,” then recognize what information is missing. She also must do additional research to add context. “That gets incredibly difficult” when more than 20 people are running for president.

Added context goes beyond just what the other side of an argument is saying, Burns said. “You want to report truth and truth is different than balance. So just having Trump say something and then getting a comment from Hillary Clinton isn’t enough. We need to go to people who are actually experts” to sort out the facts. That’s more work in newsrooms stretched thin by layoffs and declining subscriber and advertising revenue. Burns said he relies on a long list (he actually referred a Rolodex, an outdated device in the digital age) of third-party sources that help him sift competing claims and explain complex issues.

Again, it’s up to science supporters to help these hard-working members of the Fourth Estate. Efforts like SciLine can give them the resources they need to grasp issues, but we also can call or email reporters directing them to experts and research or correcting the record when candidates make unsubstantiated scientific claims.

Because if we can’t help reporters understand science and evidence-based policy, they may just ignore the subject.

And that means we’ll get more bad, science-denying government.

  1. […] As one of a handful of active members, I helped organize panels of science advocates and journalists to insert science into the Iowa Caucus […]

  2. […] power and can’t continue to hold events like this, the Science Festival Trail and Science on the Stump without people dedicated to science in the public interest and evidence-based policy stepping up to […]

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