As a physician and scientist, I have an abiding interest in the politics of Science policy; yes, I mean Science with a capital S. Science is central to our national well-being; with the emergence of the threats of global climate change, as well as the “old” threats of environmental degradation and inadequate healthcare, it assumed existential importance to the whole human race. This is why I have been railing against our present administration; to the infinite frustration of scientists worldwide, this administration has been run by ideologues who did not shy away from muzzling its own scientists, who had the audacity to appoint party hacks as censors and final arbiters of professionals eminent in their respective fields.
Obama vs. McCain
What can we expect from the new administration? There will definitely be a vast improvement, whoever is elected. As the British Nature magazine put it,
“there can be little doubt that the next U.S. administration will be more science-friendly than the present one. Both of the expected nominees, Obama and Republican Senator John McCain, have put forth platforms that represent major breaks from the policies of President George W. Bush. No matter who is elected, the United States will almost certainly repeal its ban on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells using fresh cell lines. The new president will endorse mandatory reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and work with Congress to enact meaningful climate legislation. And new leadership appointments at key agencies can only mean that morale at places such as the Environmental Protection Agency will improve.”
Fair enough. But the Brits may be a bit naїve when it comes to American politics. Politicians in this country are held in the lowest esteem possible, and for good reason—they dissemble, prevaricate, and plain lie. In British politics, such behavior invites furious attacks by the press, scathing questioning by TV interviewers, and cynical dismissal by the average bloke on the street. Not so here. The most outrageous untruths are reported in an “even handed” manner. False “balance” masquerades as fairness. Read an article that deals with the “controversial” theory of evolution and invariably you’d find the obligatory quotes from “dissenting scientists”, for the sake of “balance”. How can regular Jo and Jane, who most probably have never had the subject of evolution taught in their high school, form an informed opinion? No wonder none of the Republican candidates raised their hands in one of the early debates when asked who among them believed in evolution. Including John McCain!
Which brings me to the main point I want to make. Now that we don’t have Tim Russert to expose the crooks, to flush out the intellectual frauds, we need to do the hard work ourselves. Russert’s success owed much to his exhaustive preparation; no detail escaped his attention, no nuance was overlooked. But I think his real genius was in exploring and exposing how his interviewee’s mind works. And this is what is going to be important in deciding who is going to be our next president. There is no way we can predict how the president is going to act in different situations. But we could make an educated guess if we knew how his mind works. Does he listen to a handful of ideology-driven advisers in making key decisions? Or does he look facts in the face and base his conclusions on all the available evidence? If it’s the latter, then that is the candidate who is in sync with science at a level far more meaningful than any immediate argument over research budgets or competitiveness.
I would like to hear the candidates talk about the role of faith in policymaking. I would look for clues on how their mind works by asking them about their stands on teaching evolution in our schools, on stem cell research, on control of carbon emissions, on healthcare (“specifically senator, how many people will be covered by your plan? How will you pay for it? What assumptions are these estimates based on?”).
For these type of questions, we need educated journalists with probing minds, involved scientists and engineers, and, above all, an informed electorate. Alas, on all these counts, the political landscape is not very promising.
We are at a critical juncture in our history. We desparately need to look into the minds of our would be leaders.
Russert, we need you now.