Clinton and Trump stay true to form in talking about science

Ask Donald Trump (R) about climate change, and he’ll talk about “limited financial resources” and suggest that eradicating malaria and increasing global food production may be higher priorities for his administration. Ask Hillary Clinton (D) the same question, and she’ll spell out the key elements of her $60 billion Clean Energy Challenge aimed at making the United States a “clean energy superpower.”

The candidates have spoken on science, thanks to ScienceDebate.org, a coalition determined to tease out the science-related policy positions of those vying to be the next U.S. president. And the candidates have done so in ways that are consistent with how they won their party’s nomination and what they are saying on the campaign trail. For Clinton, that means a raft of new initiatives based on detailed arguments. Trump’s answers reflect his skepticism of the federal government’s ability to solve problems and his reticence to explain what lies beneath his sweeping generalizations.

The coalition’s name derives from its initial push in 2008 for presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain to hold a debate devoted to science. That never materialized, but the group didn’t fold its tent. In the past month Trump, Clinton, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein submitted answers to 20 questions crafted and posed by the coalition. Of the major candidates, only Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party did not respond.

Trump’s answers are probably the most newsworthy, given his silence to date on any issue that directly impacts the scientific community or that draws upon research findings. There are no zingers. Rather, they seem to echo the sentiments of conservative Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, who have emphasized that science must serve a broader national interest, that federal regulations are stifling economic growth and personal freedoms, and that the Obama administration has twisted research findings to serve its own ideological ends. Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), who chairs the science committee in the House, has used the panel to advance such an agenda, and the Trump campaign seems to have drawn liberally from its arguments.

For example, when asked how he would protect biodiversity, Trump tells ScienceDebate.org that “for too long, Presidents and the executive branch of our federal government have continued to expand their reach and impact. Today, we have agencies filled with unelected officials who have been writing rules and regulations that cater to special interests and that undermine the foundational notion of our government that should be responsive to the people. In a Trump administration, there will be shared governance of our public lands and we will empower state and local governments to protect our wildlife and fisheries.”

In contrast, Clinton voices strong support for protection and offers a detailed proposal to help achieve it. “We need to collaborate across all sectors and at all levels to conserve our natural resources and maintain the viability of our ecosystems,” she writes. “I believe, for example, that we should be doing more to slow and reverse the decline of at-risk wildlife species before they reach the brink of extinction. That is why I will work to double the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants program to help states, tribal nations, and local communities act earlier to conserve wildlife before they become threatened or endangered.”

Science education is another issue on which the two major candidates sharply disagree—and in ways that illustrate their core beliefs. For Clinton, that means promoting equity and diversity in public schools. “Every student should have the opportunity to learn computer science by the time they graduate high school,” she writes. “Strong STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] programming in every public school is critical to our nation’s success and to reducing economic and social inequality. … Beyond high school, we need to do more support the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and other Minority-Serving Institutions that train a large share of scientists and engineers of color.”

For Trump, parental choice and local control are the overriding priorities in education, with scientific literacy as a byproduct. “There are a host of STEM programs already in existence,” he writes. “What the federal government should do is to make sure that educational opportunities are available for everyone. … Our cities are a case-study in what not to do in that we do not have choice options for those who need access to better educational situations. … Until more choices are provided in our cities, those who tout their concern about educational outcomes cannot be taken seriously.”

Space emerges as one of the few issues on which some common ground is visible. Both Trump and Clinton agree that the U.S. space program has paid rich dividends for the country. And Trump comes off as the bigger spender. “Space exploration has given so much to America, including tremendous pride in our scientific and engineering prowess,” Trump writes. “A strong space program will encourage our children to seek STEM educational outcomes and will bring millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in investment to this country.”

Clinton also backs human exploration, but not at the expense of robotic missions and Earth observation. “As president, my administration will build on this progress, promote innovation, and advance inspirational, achievable, and affordable space initiatives,” she writes. “We must maintain our nation’s leadership in space with a program that balances science, technology and exploration.”

On many issues, it is Stein who takes the hardest line. In talking about innovation, she asserts that “vast resources will be freed for investment in public R&D by reduced Pentagon spending.” She opposes the use of nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions, declaring that “we will end subsidies to the nuclear industry immediately and phase out nuclear power over a 10 year timeline.” And asked about ways to improve public health and protect Americans against emerging global diseases, she advocates for a “single payer healthcare system [that] would place health as the bottom line rather than industry profits.”