Our Take on the Presidential Candidates’ Answers to 20 Science Questions

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Image from Nature Publishing Group

Written by Jess

Last month, ScienceDebate.org published a survey of our presidential candidates for their thoughts on some key scientific issues of today. Media partner Scientific American encouraged readers to provide their thoughts, and many have already done so. As a biomedical PhD candidate, I found myself imagining what my job would look like if each candidate were given the opportunity to implement their ideas. Solely based on their responses to the ScienceDebate article, here is how I imagine each candidate would influence my day-to-day:

Hillary Clinton:

Of all the candidates who responded, Clinton appears to have the most comprehensive understanding of the government’s current role in science administration, perhaps unsurprising given her previous tenures in federal office. As such, her responses were practical and nuanced, and while there were no suggestions of grandiose changes to policy, it was refreshing to hear moderate suggestions that accurately reflect concerns felt within the scientific community.

Secretary Clinton acknowledged in her responses the many institutions that rely on government support for their funding and asserted her commitment to maintaining this funding. She slipped in a comment about opening access to government-funded research results (often such results are published in journals which are accessible only for a sizeable fee; even a scientist may have trouble accessing an article in a journal that his or her institution’s library does not subscribe to).  

One point Secretary Clinton made that resonated with me personally was that we ought to find a way to fund young investigators and to support high-risk, high-reward projects. Funding for young investigators has dropped precipitously in the last few decades, with scientists being forced to push their careers back further and further. For instance, obtaining an R01, a sizeable research grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is a critical achievement for scientists in biology and health-related fields. The average age by which one obtains their first R01 has increased from 38 in 1980 to 45 in 2013. To be clear, this means scientists, on average, do not start independent careers until they are forty-five years old.

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In bright colors, the current age distribution of those holding R01 grants. In faded colors, the age distribution of those holding R01 grants in 1980. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4299207/

In the meantime, talented scientists remain in relatively low-paying postdoctoral positions for longer than they ever have before. The NIH is showing an increasing tendency toward funding scientists with proven track records and neglecting early career scientists with equally valuable research proposals but less data. A corollary to this problem is that the NIH tends to want to spend its limited funds on projects that are less risky, and by association, often less innovative. Increasing funding for younger investigators who are more likely to be able to tackle higher-risk, higher-reward projects could promote innovation as well as improve prospects for young people in science.

Another important issue for science in America is immigration policy. Many students and professionals come to the United States each year for education and jobs, but it’s not always easy for them to continue their careers once their visas have expired. For example, many Master’s and PhD students will enter the country with an F-1 or J-1 visa, which allows them to remain in the country for the duration of their education but does not provide a simple route to stay in the country upon obtaining their degree. There is an H1-B visa, which allows 65,000 people a year to enter the United States to work in specialty fields, plus another 20,000 who have recently earned a higher degree from a U.S. institution. For reference, in 2014 there were nearly 600,000 F-1 visas awarded. Students entering with a J-1 visa are not even eligible to transfer to an H1-B visa; they must return to their home country for a minimum of two years. For students entering from countries with fewer opportunities in the sciences, this is a big deal – it means it is even more difficult for them to advance in an already very competitive field.

Clinton proposes to automatically allow international students who earn a higher degree in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields to obtain a green card, as well as to create a National Office for Immigrant Affairs to support immigrants financially as they transition to U.S. citizenship.  

According to Hillary Clinton’s responses to ScienceDebate, she would focus on maintaining sufficient funding for researchers, and she would aim to address the growing problem of funding for younger scientists and riskier projects. She would additionally focus on improving the prospects of international students who earn STEM degrees in the United States and increase the number of highly skilled STEM employees entering the country. Senator Clinton’s strength in this arena is her seemingly thorough understanding of the current state of science and her reasonable proposals to support the scientific community at a federal level. Where she may run into the most opposition would be in her immigration proposals, as there is considerable difference of opinion in Congress over this particular issue.

Donald Trump:

It’s a bit more difficult to imagine the state of science under Donald Trump, because his answers were mostly airy and vague. It’s not that Trump is anti-science (unless you ask him about climate change*), but it’s not clear that he has a good idea of how science is supported by government and how his administration would continue or modify the role of government in science. Trump is all in favor of space travel, of improving STEM education, of “investing in science.” His answers, however, suffered from a dearth of substance and an overabundance of hopeful yet vague language.

Ever the businessman, Trump advises that we “bring stakeholders together” to decide the future of science in our country. Not a bad idea, just one lacking in particulars. One wonders if Mr. Trump has taken a look at the publicly available strategic plans for the National Insitutes of Heath (NIH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF), two major federal institutes charged with creating long-term goals for scientific advancement in the United States.

One thing Trump and Clinton agree on? Immigration, surprisingly. Well, sort of. Trump states that people who immigrate to the United States for STEM degrees ought to be allowed to remain in the country to obtain a science-related job if they so choose. However, he does echo recent criticisms of the H1-B visa program, namely that it has high potential for abuse by employers and that it pushes Americans out of jobs rather than addressing labor shortages. Whereas Secretary Clinton proposes to nearly double the number of H1-B visas, Mr. Trump would have the program be restricted to only cases where a position could not be filled by an American worker or current resident.

In short, a Trump administration would be uncertain for science. His sparse policy proposals don’t seem to be rooted in any sort of understanding of the relationship between science and government in the United States, and his vague ideas about innovation and advancement would be unlikely to pass a stringent peer-review process.

*When asked about his ideas for curbing climate change, The Donald suggested that we focus on some real problems, like malaria. Although I appreciate Mr. Trump’s sudden passion for parasitic tropical diseases, it could hardly be a more ironic redirection, given that rising temperatures are already causing malaria to spread to previously unaffected regions.

Gary Johnson:

Mr. Johnson, of course, is running on the Libertarian party platform and is highly in favor of reducing the role of government in people’s lives. To this point, I think the main way scientific advancement in the US would change if Johnson got his wish would be that funding would shift from the public to the private sector. Johnson does specify that federal funding should be maintained for those research endeavors which do not have immediate economic benefit for investors. This caveat is important and indicates the value of long-term investment in basic science. Oftentimes basic science, which seeks to understand fundamental scientific principles, has immense and widespread long-term impact but would not immediately pay out to private investors. Applied research, on the other hand, seeks to solve defined problems, and investors are more likely to see a fast turnaround.

Scientific advancement has a long history of federal support, but researchers themselves are already thinking about a future with increased private sector participation. Particularly in the wake of the 2012 sequester and the dismal funding situation that many researchers continue to find themselves in, more and more scientists believe private funding will play a much larger role in research than it has in the past. That said, any significant cut in federal funding for science would have to be carefully mediated to prevent loss of productivity and even loss of livelihood for many scientists.

Although Johnson is ahead of the times in terms of thinking about where science funding must come from – our next generation of scientists will almost certainly have to be more creative than the last in this regard – any Libertarian who finds themselves in charge of science funding should be careful to include a good transition plan.

Jill Stein:

Being the Green Party candidate, Ms. Stein is committed almost singularly to halting the increasingly concerning problem of global warming. In her eyes, an ideal scientific community would be a better-funded one, and one more focused on climate change research. She mentions diverting funds from the Pentagon toward research institutes, as well as “revisiting” the focus of national research institutions like the NIH and NSF. She also mentions making science policy “more democratic,” though this suggestion lacked particulars. Stein’s climate change policy is detailed and specific, and though the particulars are outside the scope of this article, I highly recommend reading about them (see question 3 of the ScienceDebate article). However, the other aspects of science policy she mentioned tended to be a bit vague. When asked about her views on the H1-B Visa program, she responded that she is in favor of the program but that she supports international development so that “people don’t have to go halfway around the world to find a job.” An admirable sentiment, but perhaps not a goal that can be met in four years – the United States is a research powerhouse, and we are likely to continue to attract young scientists for far longer than a four-year presidential term. In the meantime, expanding the visa program by allowing trainees to advance into productive science careers is a good way to encourage economic growth both at home and abroad.

 

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A history of global CO2 levels. Scientific consensus states that rapidly rising CO2 levels are the primary reason for elevated global temperatures. Source: http://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/carbon-dioxide/. A large part of Ms. Stein’s platform involves curtailing human contribution to global warming.)

In short, the research world as imagined by Jill Stein would be expansive, better-funded, and aggressively focused on climate change. However, she seems to have a limited knowledge of current institutional policy and practice, making it difficult to assess how well her administration would oversee aspects of science not related to climate change.

Each candidate brings up important issues that concern American scientists and the American public, and each candidate should be critically evaluated based on their responses. Clinton did particularly well at addressing science funding and science-related immigration. Johnson introduced the interesting point that science funding in the future may not always be supplied nigh-exclusively by the government. I would posit, though, that his hard-line libertarian stance could use a little more nuanced understanding of the vital role government plays in funding science. Stein raises climate change as the most concerning issue of the day and supplies a detailed action plan, though perhaps at the expense of developing a broad-spectrum approach to science policy. And Trump… has nice children?

For more election season fun, check out how Scientific American graded each candidate’s responses. In the interest of impartiality, I haven’t actually read this bit at the time of publication. Let me know what you think!

 

Science ACEs does not endorse any political candidate. The opinions expressed in the article are solely the author’s.

 

 

 

Jessica (Editor)
10891702_10152475816767115_155735200795992761_nJess is a fifth year biology PhD student who studies the liver and its regenerative capabilities. In her admittedly limited free time, she enjoys traveling, writing, and being outdoors.

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