Where’s the science in the 2016 election?

Astrophysicist and activist Lawrence Krauss says “science is more lacking in this presidential election than ever before.”

KraussLawrence Krauss is a prominent figure in the world of science, but his influence reaches far beyond the ivory tower. He is also a public science activist and co-founder of ScienceDebate, a campaign for a presidential debate on science, tech, health, and environmental issues. He sat down with us to explain what he’s doing to get science on the political agenda.

ResearchGate: How you would characterize the role that science has played in the 2016 election so far?

Lawrence Krauss: Science is more lacking in this presidential election than ever before. You don’t see any substantial discussion of key science issues like climate change, heath care, and scientific innovation in economic growth. The Republican Party has essentially become the anti-science party. As far as I know, there’s not a single candidate for president in the Republican Party who isn’t a climate change denier. That level of extremism has not been present before. It’s actually a little scary.

RG: Is this anti-science position one that’s shared by many voters?  

Krauss: Actually, I think it’s not reflective of the public’s position. The candidates are trying to energize some kind of base, but on a whole, the public has been shown over and over again to be much more sympathetic to things like taking action on climate change than the candidates are. ScienceDebate has done a poll that indicates a large portion of the public, about 87 percent, want candidates to have a basic understanding of the science informing policy issues. And 91 percent of Democrats and 88 percent of Republicans would like to actually hear the presidential candidates talk about it.

RG: With such high levels of public support, why is it so hard to get science on the election agenda?

Krauss: Part of the problem is that people don’t vote on science as a single issue. It’s not like abortion or guns. People can disagree with candidates about their science positions, but that won’t be what determines which candidate they vote for, so candidates are free to distort the science and do it with impunity. Ben Carson is a great example. He was more taken to task for the ignorance of his foreign policy than the fact that he thinks the earth is 6,000 years old. He thinks the big bang and evolution are the work of the devil and that God will not allow the climate to change, but none of that seemed to affect people as much as the fact that he didn’t seem to know anything about foreign policy.

“It’s science issues that will most impact the health and the welfare of the county over the next decade.”

RG: Why should voters make science issues more of a priority?  

Krauss: Science issues are ultimately going to affect every major policy question the next administration has to deal with. Everything from defense, to the environment, to health care, to the economy is related to science and technology issues. Whatever candidates say about other policy areas, it’s science that’s going to determine how successful the next president will be in realizing their agenda. It’s science issues that will most impact the health and the welfare of the county over the next decade.

RG: What should the next president’s top science priority be?

Krauss: Addressing climate change is going require a concerted national effort that involves looking realistically and seriously at renewable sources of energy as well as the energy infrastructure, with a focus not just on production, but also energy storage. National security is another big issue. We need policies that focus on realistic threats, not unrealistic ones. That means worrying less about the presence of harmless refugees and more about the dangers associated with nuclear weapons.

RG: Which of the current presidential candidates do you think has the best record in terms of taking science seriously as a political issue?

Krauss: I was impressed in the last election by the Clinton campaign’s interest in these issues and their willingness to cooperate with ScienceDebate. Of all the campaigns then, they were the most open to working with us to have a debate on these issues, the most open to discussing them at a national level. Still, other campaigns including Obama, Romney, and McCain were willing to answer our questions online. I think this willingness is reflected this time around in both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns.

RG: And on the other side of that coin? Which candidate would you say is most problematic from a science perspective?

Krauss: It’s hard to say. The least extreme Republican is Jeb Bush, but the others are largely in one camp. Admittedly, it’s hard to know with Donald Trump, because he’ll say anything. He’s maybe a little less extreme than the others, but Rubio and Carson and Cruz are all climate change deniers, I’d bet none of them would buy evolution, and they’re all eager to spend money on national security without thinking strategically about what really needs to be done in that area.

“We’re trying to have a national debate on science.”

RG: What strategies is ScienceDebate pursuing to get science issues on the election agenda?

Krauss: We’re trying to have a national debate on science. We’ve been working lately with the Democrats to have a primary debate on energy and the environment, and we’ve come close. The campaigns are receptive, and we’ll keep plugging away at it. We’re also working with the public to encourage voters to demand such a debate. If we can’t get a live debate, we’ll try to get both major campaigns to at least give written responses to questions about science and technology, as we did in 2012.

RG: If campaigns are interested in a primary debate, what’s standing in the way?

Krauss: It’s partly logistics and the need to work with media. We had a media partner fall through, so we’re looking for another. But despite these logistical problems, we’re still ahead of where we were in previous elections.

RG: As a scientist, what motivated you to want to advocate for science issues in a political context?

Krauss: As a responsible citizen who’s also a scientist, I’m in a position to inform the public and get people excited about these questions. Science issues are vitally important. They’re not necessarily political in a partisan sense, but they’re extremely important for public policy. As a scientist and as a citizen, I recognize that, and I am in the fortunate position of having a public voice I can use to try and do something about it.

Featured image courtesy of Disney | ABC Television Group.