Bora got to ask presidential candidate John Edwards 8 questions about science. As with most communications from candidates, a lot that can only be understood by reading between the lines, and by examining what isn’t there. For instance, Edwards wants to win the Iowa caucuses, so ethanol is played up, without any mention that existing ethanol technology probably has a negligible effect on greenhouse gas emissions, and promotes unsustainable agricultural practices. On the other hand, he properly puts it in the context of farm subsidies, and mostly includes it in the broader category of biofuels. Biofuels include conventional ethanol, but also biodiesel, which is economically viable already and does reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as cellulosic ethanol, biobutanol and other fuels that are on the horizon and could be produced with much lower carbon dioxide emissions, and could be manufactured from native grasses without fertilizer, irrigation or the erosion caused by plowing. He should have emphasized that ethanol is a transitional fuel at this point, not a permanent solution, but the way he talks about this suggests some awareness that ethanol is more than a ticket to votes in Iowa (he managed to discuss it without mentioning corn at all!).
Also revealing is how he handles questions he almost certainly never considered before. Bora asked a critical question, one that is too wonky to show up in the generally irrelevant debates, but critical to having a well-run government
If elected President, what do you intend to do to make sure that you receive trustworthy scientific information and that your policies are based on the best available empirical knowledge about the world?
This is a good question. As I said before, the disregard of science by the Bush administration — the censorship of data and analysis of global warming, the treatment of stem cell research, mercury emissions and other subjects — has been shameful.
As president, I will ensure that government professionals charged with the collection and analysis of scientific data–from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to the EPA–are insulated from political influence. Period.
I think we can all agree that a good question deserves more than 3 sentences and a punctuation mark in response. He made and important promise there, but how will he ensure that he keeps it?
It seemed like we were getting the same promise when President Bush declared:
Leading scientists tell me research on these 60 [sic] lines [of stem cells] has great promise that could lead to breakthrough therapies and cures.…
I will also name a President’s council to monitor stem cell research, to recommend appropriate guidelines and regulations, and to consider all of the medical and ethical ramifications of biomedical innovation. This council will consist of leading scientists, doctors, ethicists, lawyers, theologians and others, and will be chaired by Dr. Leon Kass, a leading biomedical ethicist from the University of Chicago.
It was later revealed that there weren’t really 60 lines, and scientists on the advisory panel who opposed the President’s policies were pushed out. Candidates for other advisory panels were screened on the basis of their political views about the President and abortion (a topic outside the scope of those panels; for more, see chapter 14 in The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney).
That last point would be less relevant if the Edwards campaign had been more willing to stand up for staff members who came under attack for personal opinions on subjects outside the scope of their campaign responsibilities. Part of the strategy employed to attack federal science policy has been to apply political pressure to federal scientists and advisory panels through industry lawsuits and attacks in the media. How will Edwards protect those scientists from such outside pressure?
We don’t have to go back to 2001 to find President Bush acting as if his anti-science policies were supported by science. Scientific support was implied when Bush vetoed the most recent stem cell bill. His explanation of the veto began:
I’m joined on stage by two good docs, really smart, capable people: Dr. Bill Hurlbut, Professor of Stanford University Medical Center; Dr. Don Landry, Professor at Columbia University Department of Medicine — actually, he’s the Chairman of the Department. The reason they’re here is these are brilliant biologists who are seeking new ways to develop stem cell lines without violating human life. And these are smart folks, and I cannot thank them enough for coming to the Oval Office to share with me their wisdom and their vision.
We want to encourage science. We want to say, we stand on your side in an ethically responsible way. Scientists have recently shown they have the ingenuity and skill to pursue the potential benefits of pluripotent [aka adult] stem cell research. Here’s two of them right here. That’s why they’re standing here, they have showed [sic] what’s possible.
Without background knowledge, it’s hard to see the difference between Edwards’ promise above and Bush’s misleading statements. For instance, I happen to know that Bush’s own Director of the NIH supports expanded stem cell research, and thinks the research potential of “adult stem cells” is “overstated.” That explains why two people from outside the administration were on stage, but the President’s own medical research advisors were not. I don’t doubt that Edwards will choose advisors on the basis of professional excellence, but there will be times when he will want to ensure that his advisors will deliver his administration’s line. How will he deal with that when he doesn’t know what his advisor thinks about the issue, or when he knows his advisors disagree with his decision?
I’m glad that Edwards thinks Bora’s question is important, and I hope the answer was brief because it was something he hadn’t thought about before, and not because he thinks he said all that needed to be said. I hope he’ll keep thinking about how to ensure the integrity and accuracy of the scientific advice he receives, and of the scientific statements he makes to the nation as a candidate, and hopefully as President. (N.B.: TfK has not endorsed any candidate yet, but Edwards is on the shortlist.)