Thomas R. O'Donnell

We sought candidates’ science policy views. One side mostly ignored us.

In Government, Uncategorized on November 1, 2022 at 7:24 am
The Iowa Science Policy Candidate Survey website header, featuring an Iowa map.

I’ve been involved with what began as the March for Science Iowa, now Science Iowa, almost since its inception. Launched as part of the national March for Science, its greatest achievement may have been drawing around 2,500 people to the Iowa Capitol on April 22, 2017. The Des Moines event was one of thousands around the world on Earth Day.

Another top achievement is the Iowa Science Policy Candidate Survey, an attempt to get every person seeking office in Iowa, from state legislature to U.S. Senate, on the record regarding science and science-related policy. Science Iowa has led this effort since the 2018 midterm election.

In 2020, Science Iowa’s survey received logistical support from Science Debate and the National Science Policy Network (NSPN), nonprofits that sought to foster similar efforts in other states. We joined with Iowa State University’s ASPIRE, an NSPN chapter, and the University of Iowa’s Connecting Science to Society, now an NSPN chapter, to devise the survey. Our coalition worked with multiple other Iowa science, environmental, education and agriculture organizations to compose the questions.

The 2022 midterm Iowa Science Policy Candidate Survey is having its best year yet. More, and more prominent, organizations signed on with input to our questions.

The Des Moines Register and multiple other Iowa newspapers, plus the Bleeding Heartland political blog, published opinion pieces promoting the survey. (Our attempts to appear on a conservative-leaning blog failed.)

Most importantly, we’ve received 24 candidate responses. The highlight: Both U.S. Senate candidates, Democrat Michael Franken and Republican Charles Grassley, weighed in.

Yet, that’s still only around 10 percent of the possible responses – and those we did receive revealed a worrisome phenomenon.

Before going too far, here’s a disclaimer: While I’ve helped compose the Iowa Science Policy Candidate Survey, contact candidates to seek responses, and publicize the answers, the opinions on this post are my own and not those of my fellow organizers, participating organizations or Science Iowa.

Candidates may have valid reasons to decline a survey about science. Some nominees have told us there are too many surveys, from multiple groups on myriad subjects, to answer them all. Others said they didn’t consider themselves expert enough to answer. That’s understandable: politicians often develop specialties in certain subjects while relying on the expertise of trusted colleagues who are knowledgeable in other areas.

Nonetheless, Science Iowa, ASPIRE, Connecting Science to Society and our partner groups hoped the Iowa Science Policy Candidate Survey would be a single place to find candidates’ views on vaccines, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), protections for scientific integrity, the role of evidence in building the next federal Farm Bill, and more. We hoped to make science a subject politicians take seriously and focus on, because they rarely do now. Science is central to many issues; voters should have a place to read a candidate’s positions on them.

But only two Republicans responded: Grassley and Cindy Golding, who is competing with Democrat Kris Nall for an open seat in Iowa House District 83 in eastern Linn County.

Another interesting statistic: candidates must first enter their names to view our survey on line. Even if they declined to respond, we still have a record that they visited. Five Republican candidates, two Libertarian contenders and two no-party aspirants looked at the survey but didn’t respond. Ten Democrats did the same. (Nall, Golding’s opponent, was one of them.)

You could interpret that to mean Democrats were less likely to respond. But while more Democrats examined the questions and decided they weren’t worth their time, at least they looked. Only seven Republicans – two of whom eventually answered – even bothered to go to the survey.

(Libertarians were eager to answer, perhaps because they need the attention more than candidates in the two major parties do. Seven responded, including Rick Stewart, who is running for governor.)

GOP candidates couldn’t have been reluctant out of fear their answers would be taken out of context. Our nonpartisan groups published the responses without editing, comments or endorsement. A respondent could have denied climate change existed, CAFOs caused zero harm and vaccines are fake. Voters would have read every word.

For at least one Republican candidate, this wasn’t enough. He told a Science Iowa colleague the survey questions are a setup – yes or no with no leeway. In fact, the questions are open-ended, and the candidate could have challenged their framing. When my colleague explained this, the candidate said we wouldn’t like his answers. The knowledge that his responses would be left unedited, for readers to interpret, wasn’t enough.

The candidate went to the survey again but remained discouraged. After writing responses “with too many caustic words,” he abandoned the effort. “The authors need to do a better job,” he wrote in an email.

Composing questions is difficult. Science Iowa and our partners at ASPIRE and Connecting Science to Society labored over them. A lawyer with one of our partner organizations reviewed the wording. NSPN leadership read them and made suggestions that let candidates avoid endorsing any viewpoint.

Judge for yourself: Read the questions. Choose any orange or pink district on the map (or click on the Iowa map for statewide races) and scroll through.

Maybe candidates think the questions are slanted because we asked what they would do help Iowa address climate change, not whether they accept the abundant evidence that humans are causing a warming climate. We asked how they would use science and evidence to address problems, not whether they felt those problems were legitimate. I guess some may have thought those assumptions were faulty, but if so, they could have argued otherwise or skipped the question.

Republicans may see little benefit to answering these questions, especially since their base voters might doubt science’s legitimacy and capacity to solve problems. A Gallup survey from this summer found that while 64 percent of all respondents – and 79 percent of Democrats – had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in science, only 45 percent of Republicans did. In 1975, 72 percent of Republicans expressed confidence in science.

Republican trust in science began declining long ago, with industry-encouraged climate change skepticism, but accelerated in the last two-plus years with the COVID-19 pandemic. Federal health officials harmed their efforts with poor communication, but politicians – particularly then-president Donald Trump – and right-wing media promoted misinformation and doubts, creating a backlash against science-based precautions and treatments. Trump pushed states to take measures that would inhibit the virus’s spread, but endorsed right-wing groups’ campaigns to block those regulations. He mocked mask-wearing and promoted unproven remedies.

The problem goes even deeper, however. Republican politicians have long encouraged the populist backlash against “elites” and experts, encouraging grievance in their largely white, less educated and often rural base. As longtime political consultant Whit Ayres recently told the STAT medical news website, doubts about expertise have fed into the movement, “which essentially is … anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-expertise.”

Populism, he added, promotes the notion that “‘the experts are part of the establishment, so we’re against them too.’”

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