Presidential Candidates Weigh In On
Science Policy Issues
In September, presidential candidates Donald Trump, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Jill Stein returned their responses to a set of 20 key science policy issues (Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson did not respond). The questionnaire was prepared by a national science consortium, ScienceDebate.org, that included the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences. The issues included were: Innovation; Research; Climate Change; Biodiversity; The Internet; Mental Health; Energy; Education; Public Health; Water; Nuclear Power; Food; Global Challenges; Regulations; Vaccination; Space; Opioids; Ocean Health; Immigration, and Scientific Integrity. Unfortunately, Nuclear Weapons was not among the issues presented. The full responses can be found at sciencedebate.org/20answers.
Reflecting her experience in both the Congressional and Executive branches of the government, Clinton’s responses exhibit much more specificity in terms of programmatic proposals. Among the clearer differences between Trump and Clinton were in the responses to the threat of climate change. Trump stated that "There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of 'climate change.'" However, his follow-up downplayed the issue and suggested that the nation's "limited financial resources" would be better spent making sure people have clean water, eliminating diseases such as malaria, or developing energy sources that reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
Clinton’s view was that "When it comes to climate change, the science is crystal clear. Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time and its impacts are already being felt at home and around the world." She continued with identification of intermediate goals she would pursue, including generating half the nation's electricity from clean energy sources.
Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, had the strongest, most detailed response on this front: “Climate change is the greatest existential threat that humanity has ever faced.” She called for a WWII-style national mobilization to respond to the danger, with the implication that a “Green New Deal” could create millions of new jobs in sustainable energy and energy conservation. The Clinton response on the Energy issue also called for major new investments in sustainable energy and energy conservation.
Both Trump and Clinton supported maintaining nuclear power in the nation’s energy source mix. On the Public Health Issue, Clinton proposed creation of a “Public Health Rapid Response Fund,” with consistent, year-to-year budgets, to better enable the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state and local public health departments, hospital systems, and other federal agencies to quickly and aggressively respond to major public health crises and pandemics.”
Trump, much more restrained, responded that “In a time of limited resources, one must ensure that the nation is getting the greatest bang for the buck. We cannot simply throw money at these institutions and assume that the nation will be well served. What we ought to focus on is assessing where we need to be as a nation and then applying resources to those areas where we need the most work. Our efforts to support research and public health initiatives will have to be balanced with other demands for scarce resources.”
Trump and Clinton identified a number of programmatic initiatives that would require Congressional budget authorization. However, they will all be constrained by the reality that the single largest component of the discretionary Congressional budget is Pentagon spending, some 55% of the total $1.15 trillion, about $625 billion dollars last year.This excludes Medicare and Social Security, which are federal Trust Funds. It is this enormous expenditure which constricts investment in every other sector of the federal budget addressing social and economic needs of Americans – housing, transportation, healthcare, education, biomedical research, environmental protection, infrastructure, and sustainable energy development, to name a few. Yet both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are silent on this largest payout of taxpayer’s dollars. In fact,
Trump’s campaign speeches claim the military is underfunded and called for waiving the Congressional “sequester” that currently limits increases in the Pentagon budget, and rebuilding the military through even more federal spending.
It would be very useful in this election year to have a good national debate about the balance between our domestic and military spending and the proper balance between them. This should include the issues of education and research as investments for our future. In this connection, we should keep Eisenhower's admonitions that a strong economy is essential for a strong defense. We should debate the need for the modernization of many weapons systems that are currently being proposed. Indeed, many observers of the military budget have concluded that we are spending too much and that this is reducing our security. Senator Markey and Representative Blumenauer introduced bicameral legislation that would cut $100 billion from the nuclear weapons budget over the next decade.
Last, but not least, we return to the question of nuclear weapons that surprisingly was not on the list of questions. What is their proper role in our defense? Do we have the right number or too many, as well as their proper deployment and alert status, for our defense needs? Trump also asserts that he may want to use nuclear weapons in the Middle East and elsewhere. Clinton has mostly focused on Trump's temperament to be detrimental to his being commander in chief, but has not enunciated her vision of their proper role. These are critical issues for our future.