Thomas R. O'Donnell

Poll: Iowans care about science issues. But do they care enough to push candidates?

In Government, Uncategorized on July 25, 2019 at 8:30 am

A poll shows more than half of Iowans are more likely to vote for pro-science candidates.Regular readers of this blog (Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) know I’ve nagged them to push political candidates (for almost any office, dogcatcher included) on science and evidence-based policy.

March for Science Iowa is all about this and asked candidates in the 2018 elections to answer science issue questionnaires. As one of a handful of active members, I helped organize panels of science advocates and journalists to insert science into the Iowa Caucus campaign.

But there hasn’t been hard data on how Iowans feel about science policy or how presidential candidates should address it – until now.

A new poll indicates that we care about candidates’ positions on science – and care a lot.

Two organizations, Science Debate and Research!America, hired Zogby Analytics (a reputable firm, but not with a stellar record, as fivethirtyeight.com judges it; nonetheless the margins in this poll are so large it’s not an issue) to survey 802 Iowa adults in June. The groups say the poll has a theoretical sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

It’s a good idea – one that March for Science Iowa and I proposed to Science Debate earlier this year. We couldn’t scrape together the money to do it, but the organization did give us a grant to stage “Science on the Stump,” our panel discussion mentioned earlier.

It’s great to have something we can point to when arguing for more discussion of science- and research-related issues. The numbers have clout – especially those that suggest addressing science will be good for candidates. The survey found 54 percent of respondents would be more likely to vote for a pro-science politician. Only 5 percent said they would be less likely to support such a candidate. (Who are these people?)

To me, the most important question is the first one the organizations note in their graphics. The way it’s worded is critical: “How important do you think it is that presidential candidates talk about how science and scientific research will affect their policy-making decisions if they are elected?”

The question is not “how important is it that candidates accept science” or “how important is it that candidates support science.” The pollsters want to know how important it is that politicians actually use science to make policy.Most Iowans, a poll shows, want to hear candidates say how science will influence their policy.

This is key, because science underlies (or should underlie) almost every lawmaking decision. The federal government and academia operate a massive research complex, producing data on virtually every subject, from agriculture to veterans’ affairs. Solid policy requires a solid science foundation. Administrations that reject science in favor of politics or cronyism put the country at peril. Candidates who say they will embrace science and evidence when setting policy deserve our support – and our attention to whether they abide by their pledge.

Iowans generally agree, although support is not as strong as one might expect: Almost three quarters of those polled said it’s important – but only 28 percent said it’s very important – that politicians discuss how science affects their policies. Another 46 percent of respondents say it’s just somewhat important.

Along the same lines, 75 percent of those polled said it was somewhat or very important that candidates have science advisors. Only 16 percent said it was not important.

Nearly eight in 10 Iowans surveyed want to see candidates present a plan to address climate change.On specific issues:

  • Iowans want to hear candidates’ plans to address climate change. Almost half say it’s very important while another 31 percent say it’s somewhat important. Only 18 percent say it’s not important to some degree. This indicates that the data-fudging deniers are losing, despite their efforts to obfuscate and mislead.
  • There’s even stronger support for mental health research: 71 percent of those polled said federal investments in the subject have been inadequate.

Despite this evidence, candidates generally don’t discuss science, if the poll is to be believed: more than half of respondents said they don’t recall hearing a candidate discuss science in the 30 to 60 days previous to the poll.

Only 27 percent of Iowans can recall hearing a presidential candidate discuss science in the previous 30 to 60 days.I believe that, but I wonder if voters’ memories are entirely reliable. First, most only hear or read what candidates say through the filter of the media. When reporters summarize a stump speech, they’re likely to omit a candidate’s defense of science in favor of statements on abortion, Social Security, health care and other hot-button issues. Even voters who see a candidate in person may be more inclined to remember negative comments about opposing candidates or controversial positions rather than a brief discussion of science.

That said, of the few Democratic candidates I have seen this year, I don’t recall that any mentioned science or supported research without someone asking – and I have asked when given the chance.

Most of those polled (80 percent) say the candidates should have a formal discussion on these questions by participating in a debate on key science-based issues, such as climate change. About half (52 percent) strongly agreed. (Democrats surveyed are almost unanimous on this at 97 percent, but 84 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of independents also agree.)

I agree such a forum would be worthwhile ­– but difficult to hold when competing with other interest groups that want debates on nearly every conceivable topic.

We shouldn’t wait. As I’ve said, it’s up to us voters to put science on the front burner in the campaign for president – and for other offices. Iowans have an unusual opportunity to press candidates on science – and we can start with these basic questions (PDF). We can’t let this slip past.

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