Science policy an important aspect of US presidential election
The whole world is following the US presidential election campaign and the voting, which has already started. The general public is fascinated by the polls and the predictions, keeping in mind the surprise of 2016.
Officials around the world are particularly interested in the US election because of the big policy changes that it may lead to. I would like to focus on science policy issues for two reasons. First, science and technology play increasingly major roles in our lives, both at national and international levels. Hence, it is extremely important to know what policies a US president will adopt. They will affect millions, perhaps even billions, of humans in America and around the world.
Secondly, US presidential elections — and increasingly other major elections around the world — are interesting and useful occasions where science policy questions are asked, although candidates do not put this theme at the top of their concerns. Debates among candidates and media interviews often bring up topics such as climate change, public health, energy (oil and gas, nuclear, renewable forms), space programs, the environment, biodiversity, and others.
For the last three US presidential elections, Science Debate — an American nonprofit, nonpartisan organization backed by dozens of high-level associations, many Nobel prize winners, and countless supporters — has asked the candidates to answer a number of science policy questions. This year, it has submitted a list of 20 questions to Donald Trump and Joe Biden, which it has posted on its website. As of Saturday, no answers had been posted; one can only assume that neither candidate has replied.
The questions are interesting in themselves. I cannot review and discuss all 20 of them, but I can give a general idea of the list and perhaps focus on a few of them to highlight the main issues and mention some of the known views and positions of the candidates.
The next president’s approach will affect millions, perhaps even billions, of humans in America and around the world.
One interesting question referred to how to support and improve science education. Other questions addressed issues of relevance to citizens’ lives: Public health, and mental health in particular, drug development, pollution, and other such matters. Other queries focused on policies to be implemented to catalyze technological innovations and benefit the economy, to ensure food security, to protect intellectual property (patents versus open access), to implement proper research funding, etc.
It is no surprise that the pandemic figured prominently among the questions. However, what is most interesting is that instead of asking about the candidates’ plans to defeat this virus, the question was: “Has COVID-19 changed how you think about disease preparedness and if so how?” Indeed, it is absolutely vital that, even though we are yet to overcome this historic challenge, we must learn big lessons about it at every stage, so as to be better prepared in the future.
I think that this question on the pandemic is related to others about scientists — “Will you recruit more (government) scientists, and if so, will their roles be expanded?” — and the “freedom of science:” “Will you make sure that science and scientists are not silenced?” These questions highlight the role of scientists in crises such as the pandemic and more widely on issues such as vaccines, genetically modified organisms, etc.
Two other questions were also totally expected. One on climate change: “Do you have plans to address climate change here and abroad?” And one on energy: “What energy sources will you prioritize or discourage?” These are related, as climate change can only be slowed by limiting the emission of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, which requires the gradual adoption of renewable energies (solar, wind, geothermal, etc.) in place of oil, gas and coal. We more or less know Trump’s and Biden’s views and positions on climate change and energy sources, but it would have been interesting to read their official answers to these questions.
Finally, there was a noteworthy question about the internet: “How can we protect our democratic processes and individual rights to privacy?” It is important to note the emphasis on individual rights and privacy, in addition to the protection of democratic processes, i.e., defending against cyberattacks.
In the absence of the candidates’ answers, one still learns a number of things from these important questions. Science and technology affect people’s jobs and well-being, as well as a nation’s economy and security.
I wish to see these issues raised in other campaigns around the world and addressed based on evidence, not on politics or ideology.
* Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum