The great presidential science quiz is over, and while the overall results aren’t exactly shocking, the candidates did deliver a few surprises.
The 2016 election is the third in which ScienceDebate.org has compiled a questionnaire in an effort to get the U.S. presidential candidates to focus on pressing issues in science and engineering, from climate change to space exploration. ScienceDebate.org is a coalition of 56 science organizations and 10 million voters collectively, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences.
While efforts to convince the candidates to hold a science-only debate fizzled, three of the four presidential hopefuls did take to the task of answering 20 written questions with gusto.
For people familiar with the key players, many of the answers are probably what you’d expect. Hillary Clinton’s replies are long and detailed, naming specific programs that already exist or that she would create. For instance, she pays homage to the National Parks centennial year with a promise to set up an American Parks Trust Fund to “scale up, modernize, protect and enhance our national treasures and protect wildlife habitat across the country.” (Also see "Exclusive: Obama on Threats to Nature, Power of National Parks.")
Donald Trump’s answers are short and ambiguous, mixed with contradictory promises to pare back government while expanding his priority programs. In the science realm, he favors spending on space exploration and mental health treatment, which he calls “one of the great unfolding tragedies” in need of federal support at the state and local level.
Jill Stein will surely endear herself to the Green Party with her long list of energy production methods she vows to end or ban, including fracking, tar sands, offshore drilling, oil trains, mountaintop removal, natural gas pipeline, nuclear subsidies, and a phase-out both fossil fuel and nuclear power. Also on Stein’s “must ban” list are pesticides harmful to bees.
Libertarian Gary Johnson answered after the September 6 deadline, so we've added his responses below.
You can read the full answers to all 20 questions on the ScienceDebate.org website. Here are some of the key takeaways from the candidates’ views on science and our natural world.
Everybody Wants Clean Energy
Both Clinton and Stein have long called climate change the “greatest challenge of our time” and repeated their well-known pitches for clean energy plans. Trump, who mostly avoids talking about it, says: “There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of ‘climate change’” and names a long list of better uses for the country’s limited financial resources, including fighting malaria, increasing food production—and developing energy sources that decrease our dependence on fossil fuels.
Where to Worry About Water?
Trump declared that protecting long-term water supplies is a much more urgent task than combating climate change. “This may be the most important issue we face as a nation for the next generation,” he writes. He wants to expand desalination projects and build infrastructure to carry water to regions where it is scarce. Stein wants a Green New Deal focused on infrastructure repair, while Clinton wants to create a Western Water Partnership to help fund efforts in the drought-plagued West to improve water efficiency, as well as a Water Innovation Lab to bring together urban water managers, farmers, and tribes and come up with new strategies for agricultural and industrial water use across the country.
Tackling the Oceans
One of the questions targeted ocean health, which is imperiled by acidification caused by climate change, declining fish stocks, and growing accumulation of billions of tons of plastic trash. Trump had little to say, other than to assure voters that his administration will work with Congress. Stein briefly noted overfishing, the decline of coral reefs, and ocean plastic as key issues to address. Clinton outlined plans to help fish stocks recover and called for global “pirate” fishing, which accounts for 32 percent of the global catch, to be brought under control.
The Role of Science
Clinton criticized partisan efforts to interfere with the way scientists work, an ongoing concern for the issue of scientific integrity. Stein suggested that one way to win back public trust is to stop appointing industry insiders to head government agencies, citing President Obama’s appointment of Robert Califf, a cardiologist with ties to the pharmaceutical industry, to head the Food and Drug Administration. Trump merely writes: “Science is science and facts are facts …” and assures voters of “total transparency.”
Johnson Weighs In
Johnson favors market-driven solutions over government regulation on most fronts. The exception is protection of clean water, which he says is “unavoidably a federal function.”
On climate change, Johnson says he “accepts” that human activity contributes to climate change, but notes that activities contributing to climate change “also contribute to mankind’s health and prosperity, so we view with a skeptical eye any attempts to curtail economic activity.” He thinks a “motivated and informed” market will mitigate “at least some of mankind’s effects” more effectively than unilateral regulatory approaches or international treaties. Likewise, Johnson supports a “market-based approach” to energy policy. Nuclear power, he says, has been underused. The use of wind and solar power should be market-driven.
Noting that ocean health is largely an international problem, Johnson says his administration’s approach would focus on international agreements and “allowing consumer-driven market forces to reduce over-harvesting and ocean pollution.”
On space exploration, Johnson’s answer is brief and suggests that the federal government can little afford to play a leading role. ”The private sector has access to far more resources than the public,” he says. “So we welcome private participation and even dominance in space exploration.”