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Science On The Campaign Trail: See Where The Candidates Stand

Anti-science views are trending in politics—though NASA brings America together

During the 2016 White House Science Fair, Barack Obama looks at the wall where Joey Hudy, 14, shot a marshmallow from the Extreme Marshmallow Cannon he invented. Are the days of the presidential science geek coming to a close?

In the midst of a heated election cycle, let’s take a break for a guessing game. Which political figure said the following?

“It is essential that we recognize science as a many-purpose tool, fully as necessary to human progress as it is to the security of free men. Our nation demands a strong science and a vigorous technology to defend itself, to advance personal liberty, and to raise standards of living.”

Ok, I’ll spare you the suspense: It was Richard Nixon, back in 1960 when he was Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. Since then, we’ve been to the moon and cured major diseases. We’ve invented the internet, wireless communication, and solar power. In countless labs across the nation, both within universities and the private sector, we’ve developed tools that bring us closer to clean air, water, and energy.

Science used to be non-partisan, but it’s increasingly become politicized. Democrats these days are generally pro-science, and like it or not, most Republicans on the campaign trail have been on the anti- side of the spectrum for quite some time. Yet it was Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency. eagan had a love affair with NASA. Even—get this—George W. Bush believed the science behind global warming.

That’s why it was something of a surprise when Hillary Clinton, in the midst of her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, made a pro-science declaration to rapturous applause. “I believe in science!” she said, followed by an Obamaesque chortle. “I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs.

There’s no way this should be a controversial statement, but compared to her challengers for the presidency—Republican nominee Donald Trump and third-partiers Gary Johnson and Jill Stein—Clinton is the only candidate to hold an unequivocal pro-science viewpoint. And while top-line issues like terrorism, economics, immigration, and social justice might grab the headlines, science policy shows how our candidates plan to invest in future solutions while attempting to curb some of America’s excesses.

On Climate Change And The Environment

Hillary Clinton, as forcefully stated in her acceptance speech, is a true believer in climate change. Policy-wise, this means staying the course that President Barack Obama has set: a commitment to dropping emissions 30 percent by 2025 in accordance with the Paris Agreement. Clinton has promised the installation of 500,000 solar panels in her first term, as well as a $60 billion “Clean Energy Challenge,” which encourages state and local communities to adopt solar, wind, and geothermal power in order to cut pollution.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Donald Trump's extreme climate denialism is a marker of how completely outside the mainstream he is on this issue.[/quote]

Donald Trump has repeatedly called Obama’s climate policies “totalitarian.” If there is any concrete part to his science agenda, it’s an anti-Obama renege on the Paris Agreement. The quotes are easy to nitpick, like when Trump claimed global warming was a “hoax created by the Chinese” (he was only joking, though?), but he has repeatedly bashed environmental regulations, going as far as pledging to end the Environmental Protection Agency—a body he incorrectly referred to as the Department Of Environmental while declaring it a “disgrace.” Eliminating the EPA would mean eliminating the Clean Power Plan, which is the basis of America’s strategy to reach the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. Don’t worry, though. The president alone doesn’t have that power.

I asked Seth Stein, national press secretary for the League Of Conservation Voters, if Trump’s stance on climate and environmental science issues was an aberration. “Donald Trump's extreme climate denialism is a marker of how completely outside the mainstream he is on this issue,” he told me. “We've seen more progress on climate change in the last year than we've ever seen before, and voters are looking for a candidate who not only understands that but is ready to meet that issue head on. Trump is going down a path that's been carved out by other deniers before him, but going to a complete extreme.”

Gary Johnson, to the left of Trump here, says global warming is “probably” an issue, but he wants the government to focus on protecting us from its most severe harms rather than coddling lobbyists with empty regulations.

Jill Stein wants to “lead on a global treaty” to halt climate change—a lofty goal, but one that Obama accomplished last year. She’s called her plan a “Green New Deal,” promising a total shift to clean energy by 2030, along with investments in conservation, sustainable agriculture, and public transit systems.

On Research

Hillary Clinton has committed to increase research funding across the board, including budget hikes for the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Donald Trump has no concrete policy on scientific research. He has called the National Institutes Of Health (NIH) “terrible,” as well as showing a healthy disregard for research-based consensus on subjects as disparate as Ebola and wind power. Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, is a notorious opponent of stem cell research. He also once published an article which claimed that smoking “doesn’t kill.” If you’re living an alternate reality where anything is possible, why would we need research?

Gary Johnson, ever the financial stickler, supports research in theory (check out his comments on marijuana research above) but would slash the funds available from the federal government, for example cutting all funding for stem cell research. He believes the private sector, colleges, and nonprofits should contribute a greater percentage of scientific funding to fill the gap.

Jill Stein would redirect military funding toward the research of renewable energy and conservation. Her plan calls for the creation of a “democratically-controlled energy” through the development of an electricity grid which would store power from renewable sources.

On Vaccines

Do vaccines cause autism? Pandering to vocal minorities is a crucial function of American politics, yet the safety of vaccinations has become an unexpected wedge issue in the 2016 election. Clinton is the only candidate who accepts the overwhelming scientific evidence on vaccines. “The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork,” she tweeted last year.

Again, this shouldn’t be a big deal (or even an issue in a national election, really), but Hillary Clinton is the only candidate to adopt an unwavering pro-vax stance. Jill Stein has been in hot water since the convention for her “not all those issues were completely resolved” interview with the Washington Post—though she later clarified her position, and I suppose any water is better than none at all. Gary Johnson hasn’t clarified his stance on vaccinations. He is certainly against mandating them, though.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, a candidate who has maintained a strong anti-vaccination stance even when he’s said he’s for them. “Autism has become an epidemic,” he said in a Republican debate last September. “Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control. I am totally in favor of vaccines, but I want smaller doses over a longer period of time. Same exact amount, but you take this little beautiful baby, and you pump—I mean, it looks just like it's meant for a horse, not for a child.”

On Space

Space brings America together. Did you see that Mad Men episode where they watched the moon landing? Did you not cry? Even Trump isn’t immune to thinking NASA is pretty awesome. “Honestly, I think NASA is wonderful,” he responded to a question on Reddit last week. “America has always led the world in space exploration.”

But in Trumplandia what’s sure as shit one week is the opposite the next. Speaking this past Wednesday in Daytona Beach, about 75 miles from the Kennedy Space Center, the Republican nominee performed a violent about-face. “Look at your space program,” he said. “Look what’s happened with our whole history of space and leadership. Look what’s going on, folks. We’re like a third-world country.”

Clinton, on the other hand, was once rejected by NASA when she asked about becoming an astronaut. (See? She’s always dreamed big!) In 2016, though, it appears she’s all-in on the space program. Gary Johnson, too. Even a libertarian can be tempted by unexplored frontiers, although he would like to reign its budget in.

Jill Stein, though, goes the furthest. In a recent Q&A, she proposed cutting the military budget and giving a chunk of the savings to NASA. “We should be exploring space instead of destroying planet earth,” she wrote. “If we cut the military budget in half, we'll have plenty of money for human needs on earth and the advancement of science and space exploration.”

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