January 21, 2019

Election 08′; What About the Science?

Ok, this week, Astroguyz will get political. I promise not to bludgeon my fans with it like the rest of popular media.

We here at Astroguyz decided to do this piece not just to jump on the election year band wagon, but as an effort to educate ourselves. Frequently, we hear much talk about Iraq and the economy during an election, but little about science. Far from being a single, remote issue during a campaign, science dominates our daily lives as a technical culture. If we fail to recognize that fact, America will lose its hard won footing as up and coming powers such as India and China eagerly pass us by. Already, we could be facing a brain drain to places such as Singapore and Europe… if research cannot be performed or funded in this country, scientists will go elsewhere. Even as we blog, the activation of the Large Hadron Collider this year means that for the first time in decades, the premier center for particle physics research will not be in the states.

So, where do the opposing candidates stand on scientific issues? As usual, their answers are as clear as mud. They attempt to be for and against things at the same time. We will attempt to delve into what the voting records of these candidates have been, how scientifically literate they have appeared, and what science in America may look like under their respective administrations.

-Voting Records: Beyond their rhetoric, a candidates’ voting record can serve as a good indicator of what their administration might look like. After all, both McCain and Obama are senators; we haven’t had a senator for President since Nixon, (and we all know how that turned out!) Much can be derived from the Vote Smart website. Unfortunately, not a lot of scientific issues have come up for vote in recent years. McCain voted for the approved funding for stem cell research, but was curiously absent on several key votes concerning education and carbon emissions, issues that Obama voted yes on.

-The Future of NASA: Interestingly, McCain is against the renewal of INKSNA, or the Iran, North Korea, Syria Non-Proliferation Act (i.e. the “Axis of Evil” Act). More specifically, Russia currently gets a pass on its restriction of weapons grade technology, in return for support of the International Space Station (ISS). However, with Russia’s shenanigans in Georgia, talk is of resuming this restriction. This would in turn put the rumored extension of the Space Shuttle program past 2010 back on the table.

–Return to the Moon/Mars: In 2004 President Bush proposed that we return to the moon in 2020 and then onward to Mars. Thus, the Constellation program was born. Much is still unclear about the direction of this project; the first unmanned test launches are scheduled for 2009 to set the stage for a manned lunar landing in 2019… although the program promises to be “Apollo on ‘riods,” one wonders if we have the national initiative to carry this out. We’re not in competition with the Soviets; the program seems less than visionary. Our humble opinion is that it’s only worth going to the Moon if we are planning to stay, much like we do Antarctica. Something radically different, like a mission to an Earth crossing asteroid (Aphosis is whizzing by in 2029) would also be unique and capture the publics’ imagination. But the future of NASA is in a very real sense in the balance during this election. What do the candidates say? With McCain, it may be likely that the initiative begun under Bush would continue; however, as mentioned above, there are already rumblings of extending the shuttle to support the ISS out to 2013; our bet is that if Constellation makes it off the ground, the timeline (and the budget) will expand. A NASA that fights to preserve Constellation at the cost of slashing everything else is a space program that no one wants. What will happen to NASA under Obama is less clear. Obama recently suggested yet another NASA overhaul, stating that “NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration”; he also later backed up and said he would still support Constellation.

–Science in Space: And what of useful scientific research in space? Here we enter the realm of speculation; unmanned missions and satellites aren’t as sexy, and therefore, tend to suffer first. In the apocryphal words of the film The Right Stuff: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” Of course, you need both; manned space flight will stimulate the private sector, and has given us neat spinoffs such as Velcro and Tang… and heck, people love it, and its just plain cool! Also, developments such as the big Saturn V rockets developed for Apollo also gave us the technology that enabled the opportunities for the Grand Tour of the Pioneers and the Voyagers in the 70s’. Still, it rankles scientists that projects such as the ISS get the lion’s share of the budget while producing questionable science returns, and scaled back unmanned missions are left to pick at the bones.

It may be useful to look back at what administrations pushed what:  in the 50 years of NASA, we’ve had 4 Democratic presidents and 6 Republican ones. In their 20 years of NASA time, Democrats have challenged us to go to the Moon; they’ve also resided over the lean years in the late 1970′s, when NASA almost became non-existent. In the 30 year span of Republican reign, the Shuttle program and planetary exploration again flourished; however, they also resided over two shuttle disasters under the misguided “Better, Cheaper, Faster,” motto.

-Hot Button Issues: Think that science is a non-starter this election? Think again;

–Stem cell research: Of course, the pundits have tied this issue to abortion. While we debate the ethics of this issue, countries like Singapore are moving ahead and simply doing it. How long can we expect to maintain dominance?

–Global Warming: As the biggest emitter of CO2, it’s shocking that we are the least willing to do anything about it. Clearly, some forward thinking is urgently needed; we simply can’t exchange our future for short term profit any longer. Most of what I hear from the McCain camp is to simply drill for more oil; this is a very short term solution. If our civilization is to be here a century from now, it will look vastly different than what we see today. Obama seems to be a little more forward thinking, but I still wonder if his alternative energy plans will be enough.

-Candidates’ Scientific IQ: Another useful source is how intelligently candidates can speak of scientific issues. Granted, no one expects the candidates to be technical experts, but it’s mildly stunning when a sitting president routinely consults an astrologer on matters of state. The candidates don’t talk science much, but one recent event stands out. During World Autism Day on April 2nd, the four (remember when we had four?) major party candidates felt obliged to speak out on the issue. Of all the candidates, only Obama (Hillary got close!) mentioned that part of the reason the diagnosis of autism has increased is due to the fact that the definition has expanded to cover such milder high functioning forms as Aspergers.

-Science Education: This is the two ton gorilla in the room. Everyone agrees that education is important, and yet nobody wants to fund it. If we want to maintain our competitive edge, we need to start educating folks in science and mathematics now. It’s sobering to think that while we’re enamored with high technology, we have almost no understanding of how it works!

–Evolution in Schools: Several battles have reared there ugly heads in small town America in the past few years. Obama has been fairly silent on this one; McCain, however, has fallen into the We Need to Expose Children to Alternate Theories -camp at least once. We may as well teach astrology and belief in the Easter Bunny while we’re at it! This one strikes near and dear to my Astronomers’ soul; take down evolution, and can cosmology be far behind? Already, the origin of the universe has pseudo-science snapping at its heels…

–Anti-science: No one candidate has come out that they are virulently against science, as its good for industry (i.e. unions and special interest groups) but it’s always worth being on the look out for. If we see any candidate clutching their crystals, we’ll let you know…

-What the Parties Say: As expected, the respective websites of both parties are pretty silent on the issue of science. The Republicans have some oblique comments on education, ala No Child Left Behind, while the Democrats have more to say on the environment.

-What the Blogs say: Of course, there are no shortage of blogs (such as this one!) discussing all things political. Like all media, blogs may be biased, but they serve grass roots democracy in that we’re not corporately run. (That’s real blogs, not CNN or Fox’s “check out my blog…”) Sure, most are terribly done, but the few that shine, shine bright. And remember, most of us provide this service for free! A good place to start is Space Politics.com .  What’s on our pod catcher? A podcast that will occasionally range towards things scientific and political is the Skeptics Guide to the Universe .

So that’s our two cents… I promise to get off of my soap box now. Next week, it’ll be back to Astronomy. And no, we here at Astroguyz haven’t totally made up our minds which way we’re going to vote yet! We tend to run towards the fiercely independent… Incidentally, I’m also putting my money were my mouth is… I plan to have my Science degree finished and become a science teacher in a few years. If anything else, I hope to instill a sense of the difference between Astrology and Astronomy in the next generation…I just hope that I’m not forbidden to teach cosmology when I get there!


  1. NAU says:

    I was a total loner, not by self-design. I just didn’t know what the hell to say to people. I was so shy. I used to stammer and lisp and dribble at the mouth.SirAnthonyHopkinsSir Anthony Hopkins, on his youth

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