Hillary Clinton’s “I believe in science” declaration aside, science has not played a starring role in the 2016 presidential election. Far from it. For the most part, the candidates’ science policies have trickled out in dribs and drabs, and in varying degrees of detail — talking points on a website here, a passing comment in response to a spur-of-the-moment question there.
Yet science underpins our understanding of, and response to, the world around us. It answers everything from why our coffee sloshes dangerously to what could happen if the planet warms another degree or two. Science often intersects with public policy, and presidential leadership influences research priorities.
With that in mind, Science News examines where Clinton, the Democratic Party nominee, and Republican Party nominee Donald Trump stand on seven scientific issues with the power to impact our future. Our writers looked at what the candidates have said publicly at campaign events and in interviews, what they have written on their websites, relevant planks in their party’s platform, and their responses, released September 13, to 20 questions posed by the nation’s science advocates. (Science News’ parent organization, Society for Science & the Public, is among the groups pushing to make science more prominent in the presidential campaigns, via an initiative called ScienceDebate.org.)
Read on to find out what Clinton and Trump have said on topics ranging from genetic engineering to space exploration, and how their positions accord with the current state of the science. — Macon Morehouse
Space Exploration • Genetic Engineering • Climate Change • Health • Vaccines • Gun Research • STEM Education
Q: What, if any, should be the top space exploration priorities for the United States, and what role should private space flight play?
As she tells the story, Clinton wanted to be an astronaut when she was 14 years old, but NASA told her that they weren’t accepting girls. That doesn’t seem to have dampened her enthusiasm. “I really, really do support the space program,” she told a crowd in July 2015 at a town hall meeting in Dover, N.H. “There’s a lot for us to keep learning … Let’s not back off now.”
Clinton has provided few specifics on what the United States should be doing in space, but she told ScienceDebate.org that one of her goals is to “advance our ability to make human exploration of Mars a reality.”
Clinton’s position seems to align with that of her party’s platform: “Democrats believe in continuing the spirit of discovery that has animated NASA’s exploration of space over the last half century. We will strengthen support for NASA and work in partnership with the international scientific community to launch new missions to space.” The platform makes no mention of what role, if any, commercial enterprises such as SpaceX and Blue Origin should play in furthering space exploration. Clinton has said that she doesn’t object to partnering with private ventures, but that their role is more aligned with applied science, whereas the government should be funding basic research and discovery.
Trump is a big fan of space exploration — “a strong space program will encourage our children to seek STEM [education] and will bring millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in investment to this country,” he told ScienceDebate.org. But he has also repeatedly said that it’s a luxury the country can’t afford. “I love NASA, I love what it represents, I love what it stands for,” he said during a November 11 event in Manchester, N.H. “Right now we have bigger problems.… We’ve got to fix our potholes.”
NASA should focus on exploring new frontiers, Trump told Aerospace America in May. Infrastructure, economics and defense come first, however. “Our first priority is to restore a strong economic base to this country,” he said. “If we are growing with all of our people employed and our military readiness back to acceptable levels, then we can take a look at the timeline for sending more people into space.”
Both Trump and the Republican Party support working with private companies to expand access to space. “I think there needs to be a growing partnership between the government and the private sector as we continue to explore space,” Trump told Aerospace America. “There seems to be tremendous overlap of interests so it seems logical to go forward together.”
State of the science:
Pluto reconnaissance. Ripples in spacetime. Discovery of thousands of worlds around other stars. Space exploration is in a golden age, and astronomers as well as policy experts want continued support for basic research, whether by building new telescopes or sending probes to far-flung worlds. NASA is on track to launch James Webb, the next major space-based telescope, late in 2018 and has started work on that telescope’s successor, WFIRST. The agency launched a probe in September to bring samples of an asteroid back to Earth (SN Online: 9/8/16), and plans are under way for the next Mars rover and a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa (SN Online: 6/18/15).
Current policy regarding the role of humans in space is muddled. “No dream, no vision, no plan, no budget,” said former NASA administrator Michael Griffin at a congressional hearing in February. NASA proclaims it will send humans to Mars in the next 20 years — while others argue for a return to the moon — but there is no clear outline or long-term financial support (SN Online: 5/24/16).
Private companies, despite the occasional rocket explosion, are enjoying a run of success. Dramatic rocket landings are making reusable launch components a reality, and SpaceX and Orbital ATK have been making supply runs to the International Space Station. SpaceX also plans to send an uncrewed mission to Mars in 2018. — Christopher Crockett
Q: What, if any, limits should the United States set for genetic engineering, and why?
Clinton has not taken a public stance on human genetic engineering or genetic modification of animals or insects. Genetically engineered crops, often called GMOs, are another matter.
“I stand in favor of using seeds and products that have a proven track record … scientifically provable,” she said at a meeting of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization in 2014. “Genetically modified sounds Frankensteinish, [but] drought resistant sounds really [like] something you want.” At a town hall meeting in Fairfield, Iowa, in December, she elaborated: “There are a lot advocates who fight hunger in Africa who are desperate for GMO seeds because they are drought resistant and they don’t know how else they are going to get enough yield to feed people.”
At that same town hall, Clinton said she also favors food labeling. “There’s a right to know,” she said. “There’s also a right to have the best science.… Whatever kind of overall plan we can have that will give us information, we deserve to know and get more science done that is independent science that we can count on that doesn’t get done by some institution, company, whatever, that has a stake in the outcome.”
Trump has been silent on matters concerning genetic engineering, whether it’s involving humans, animals or plants.
But the Republican Party platform weighs in on GMO food and labeling: “We oppose the mandatory labeling of genetically modified food, which has proven to be safe, healthy and a literal life-saver for millions in the developing world.”
State of the science:
Genetic engineering has taken on new vigor with the introduction of technologies such as the powerful gene editor CRISPR/Cas9 (SN: 12/12/15, p. 16; SN: 9/3/16, p. 22). Scientists may soon be able to alter genes in any organism, including humans, at will. That has many people, including scientists, worried about social, health, ethical and environmental consequences.
The United States doesn’t have laws to establish what types of genetic engineering are allowed, but does regulate the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment. For instance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently OK’d the first GM mosquito trial in an effort to curb the spread of the Zika virus (SN Online: 8/5/16). And in July, President Obama signed into law a measure that requires labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
One of the most controversial uses of gene editing is making changes to the human germ line — embryos, eggs, sperm and the cells that give that rise to them — that could be carried to future generations. Such edits could cure genetic diseases permanently, but may also lead to “designer babies” and raises fears of a new kind of eugenics (SN: 5/30/15, p. 16). An international group of scientists said last year that research on human gene editing should go ahead, but that no babies should be born as a result (SN: 12/26/15, p. 12). A federal spending bill prohibits the FDA from considering, or even acknowledging, applications for scientists to make heritable changes in human embryos. Some call it an effective ban on engineering the human germ line, including the creation of “three-parent babies” in which the nucleus from a mother’s egg is transplanted into an empty donor egg to help a mother avoid passing mitochondrial diseases on her children. A panel of scientists have deemed that procedure ethical under certain circumstances (SN Online: 2/3/16). — Tina Hesman Saey
Q: What, if any, steps do you think the United States should take to combat climate change and why, or why not?
“I believe in science. I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs,” Clinton said during her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July. She has called last December’s 195-nation Paris climate agreement a “historic step forward” and says she’ll deliver on the U.S. pledge to curb warming without “relying on the climate deniers in Congress to pass new legislation.”
Her goal: reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 2025 by up to 30 percent relative to 2005 levels and ultimately by 80 percent by 2050. To reach those ambitious targets, Clinton would invest in renewable energy, including creating a $60 billion Clean Energy Challenge to promote cutting carbon pollution and expanding clean energy. Within 10 years of taking office, she hopes to have enough renewable energy capacity in the United States to power every home and cut oil consumption by a third. “I’m proud that we shaped a global climate agreement,” she said at the convention. “Now we have to hold every country accountable to their commitments, including ourselves.”
Trump has repeatedly called human-caused climate change a hoax; any efforts to combat it are needlessly burdensome on the economy, he says. “President Obama entered the United States into the Paris climate accords. Unilaterally and without the permission of Congress, this agreement gives foreign bureaucrats control over… what we’re doing on our land in our country,” Trump said May 26 at a campaign event at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, N.D. “We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement and stop all payments of the United States tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs.”
Trump has said that he would undo many climate initiatives put in place by the Obama administration, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to cut emissions from power plants. Trump would also end the Interior Department’s moratorium on coal mining permits and “encourage, not discourage, the use of natural gas and other American energy resources.” According to the Trump campaign, lifting these and other restrictions would increase the country’s economic output by $700 billion annually over the next 30 years, increase wages by $30 billion annually and create millions of new jobs.
State of the science:
Satellite and on-the-ground measurements have recorded a sharp rise in global temperatures over the past several decades that is unprecedented in the last millennium. That warming is in large part caused by emissions from human activities such as fossil fuel burning, computer simulations and direct observations have shown (SN: 4/4/15, p. 14).
Greenhouse gases from these emissions, such as carbon dioxide, trap heat that would otherwise escape into space. As a result, the global average temperature has risen around 1 degree Celsius since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and the rate of warming has nearly doubled over the past half century. If continued unabated, this climate change will raise sea levels, shift rainfall patterns and cause health and economic problems around the world (SN: 4/16/16, p. 22), many scientists warn.
The Paris climate agreement is the most ambitious plan yet to limit and reverse this trend (SN: 1/9/16, p. 6). The pact, reached in December, aims to limit warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, with a possibility of adopting an even more ambitious 1.5-degree target down the road. U.S. participation is crucial to the success of the agreement: The United States is the second largest emitter of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide worldwide and the 10th largest per capita. — Thomas Sumner
Q: When it comes to public health initiatives and disease research, what should our priorities be and how would you support those priorities?
“I’m committed to ramping up our funding for biomedical research and development, including $2 billion per year for Alzheimer’s research, which is the amount leading researchers say will be necessary to effectively treat the disease and make a cure possible by 2025,” Clinton wrote in an August 8 Quora post.
She has endorsed the Obama administration’s cancer moonshot initiative (SN Online: 9/8/16): “By combining new funding with creative approaches, we will not only catalyze progress against cancer: We will strengthen the nation’s entire scientific enterprise.… As president, I will take up the charge.”
Clinton also has also pushed for additional funding to fight the Zika virus. In another Quora post, she wrote: “If we’re serious about keeping families safe, there’s no time to waste. We need to step up mosquito control and abatement, provide families with critical health services, including access to contraception, develop a vaccine and treatment, and ensure people know how to protect themselves and their kids.” She told ScienceDebate.org that she would create a Public Health Rapid Response Fund with stable funding and the agility “to quickly and aggressively respond to major public health crises and pandemics.”
Trump has said little on issues regarding biomedical research, but noted on a radio show in 2015, “I hear so much about the NIH [National Institutes of Health] and it’s terrible.”
“We cannot simply throw money at these institutions and assume that the nation will be well served,” he told ScienceDebate.org. “Our efforts to support research and public health initiatives will have to be balanced with other demands for scarce resources.”
When asked a question about Alzheimer’s disease at a New Hampshire town hall, he responded: “It’s a total top priority for me. I have so many friends whose families are devastated by Alzheimer’s. There are some answers. They’ve made less progress than we had hoped, as you know.” (Trump’s father had Alzheimer’s.)
On Zika, he told a Miami television station in August: “Well, first of all you have a great governor, who’s doing a fantastic job, Rick Scott, on the Zika. And it’s a problem, it’s a big problem. But I watch and I see, and I see what they’re doing with the spraying and everything else. And I think he’s doing a fantastic job. And he’s letting everyone know exactly what the problem is and how to get rid of it. He’s going to have it under control. He probably already does.”
State of the science:
The National Institutes of Health funded $32.3 billion of biomedical research during the 2015–2016 fiscal year. Parceling out those dollars and setting research priorities can be controversial, with advocacy groups for specific diseases jostling for more money for their own cause. But with people generally living longer than they did 50 years ago, funding for aging-related diseases like Alzheimer’s is on the rise.
Research into cancer, neuroscience and genetics, among other broad topics, is also funded by the NIH. But some scientists caution against devoting too much energy to curing specific diseases at the expense of basic research — studies that don’t have an immediate application, but that can yield results leading to advances disciplines.
On the public health front, emerging diseases are a growing threat. Warming temperatures are letting infectious tropical diseases thrive in places they couldn’t previously, the World Health Organization warns. Zika virus is a case in point, having blazed a path through the Americas (and beyond) in less than a year (SN Editor’s Picks). Most experts agree that Zika is currently a serious problem in the United States requiring a national response. The virus had infected more than 18,000 people in the states and territories as of early September, and with mosquitoes in Florida now carrying and spreading the disease, the numbers are expected to climb. — Laurel Hamers
Q: What is your position on vaccines, and why?
In February 2015, Clinton sent out a tweet heard round the world: “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest.”
She reiterated her pro-vaccine stance in response to a ScienceDebate.org question, vowing to “speak out and educate parents about vaccines, focusing on their extraordinary track record in saving lives and pointing out the dangers of not vaccinating our children.”
But Clinton hasn’t always been this definitive.
In 2008, in response to a questionnaire from a web newspaper called Age of Autism, Clinton appeared to question one heavily researched area of vaccine safety.
“I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines,” she wrote. “We don’t know what, if any, kind of link there is between vaccines and autism — but we should find out.”
Clinton has since stepped away from this view. Though her campaign website highlights the need to support people with autism, it makes no mention of vaccines. Instead, Clinton pledges to ramp up funding for research “to better understand child brain development and the genetic linkages for autism” and calls for a nationwide study of the prevalence of autism in adults.
Donald Trump occupies a nebulous, quantum-flux sort of position on vaccines that places him in both the pro- and the anti- camps.
For years, he has championed the idea that vaccines cause autism. In 2014, he tweeted: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes — AUTISM. Many such cases!”
But Trump objects to being lumped in with anti-vaxxers. In 2014, Trump tweeted: “To all haters and losers: I am NOT anti-vaccine, but I am against shooting massive doses into tiny children. Spread shots out over time.”
Trump’s campaign website does not mention vaccines or autism, but he has admitted to slowing the vaccine schedule for his youngest son, Barron.
But he has also said that as president, he would support vaccinations. “We should educate the public on the values of a comprehensive vaccination program,” Trump told ScienceDebate.org. “This seems to be of enough importance that we should put resources against this task.”
State of the science:
Vaccines have all but wiped out dozens of infectious diseases. In the United States, a case of smallpox hasn’t been reported for more than 60 years, polio has been eliminated, and measles deaths have plummeted. Diseases suffered by one generation can be nearly vanquished in the next. Children today, for example, can receive vaccines against the viruses that cause chicken pox and cervical cancer.
Today’s children also receive vaccines for more diseases than they did 20 years ago — 14 by age 2 compared with 10 in 1996. But today’s vaccines contain far fewer of the viral or bacterial particles that rev up the immune system.
Yet many parents worry about the current vaccine schedule. In 2013, 87 percent of pediatricians reported that parents refused at least some vaccines for their children. That’s up from 74.5 percent in 2006. A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine, however, found no evidence that the vaccine schedule was unsafe. (In fact, the report concluded that a study to spread out vaccines would “needlessly endanger children’s lives.”) And skipping vaccines weakens herd immunity, putting people who can’t get vaccinated — some infants, people with compromised immune systems — at risk (SN Online: 2/11/15).
Scientists have also found no evidence that vaccines cause autism, another concern parents cite (SN Online: 4/1/16). Still, the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder has risen, from 1 in 150 children in 2002 to 1 in 68 in 2012. Scientists don’t fully understand why, or what triggers the disorder. But researchers around the world have spent years investigating the purported link between vaccines and autism. Their conclusion: It’s just not there. — Meghan Rosen
Q: Do you think the effective ban on research into gun-related violence should be lifted, and why or why not?
Clinton has staked out a position as the candidate favoring gun control. But her stance on gun research isn’t so clear.
At a campaign event in South Carolina in February, she alluded to the difficulties facing lawmakers and gun violence researchers: “I know we are a smart enough nation to figure out how you protect responsible gun owners’ rights and get guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”
Clinton’s campaign website lists a few major gun policy changes she’d make as president, including expanding background checks and making it harder for mentally ill people and violent criminals to buy and own guns. Her website doesn’t, however, address the question of research funding.
Like Clinton, Trump has not made his position on funding gun research clear. But he has planted himself firmly on the pro-gun side.
Trump proposes a “national right to carry,” which would let people with concealed weapon permits carry guns in all 50 states. His website questions the efficacy of background checks and calls gun bans “a total failure.” That’s a reversal from a statement he made in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve: “I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.”
State of the science:
In June, the American Medical Association announced a new effort to revive gun violence research.
For the United States, gun violence is a public health crisis “unrivaled in any other developed country,” the doctors’ group declared. Research, the association argued, could help scientists figure out how to reduce the number of gun-related deaths — more than 33,000 per year.
But America doesn’t make researching gun violence easy (SN: 5/14/16). Federal laws limit funding and keep some gun data hidden from the public. There’s no “ban” on gun research — technically — though some scientists argue that one law does essentially just that. Called the Dickey amendment, it prevents the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control.”
A second law, called the Tiahrt amendment, limits sharing of gun-crime data. Only law enforcement, not the public, can access the detailed data about gun crimes collected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Researchers do have some data to work with — it’s just not all that complete. The National Violent Death Reporting System, for example, tracks deaths by guns, but in only 42 states. In December, the Senate passed the Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act, which encouraged inclusion of more states. Participation would be voluntary.
“Without research and being brave enough to ask the questions, we’re going to have ill-informed, emotional arguments,” American Academy of Family Physicians president Wanda Filer told The Hill newspaper in June. “What we’re saying is, we need research.” — Meghan Rosen
Q: What, if anything, would you do about STEM education in the United States?
While Clinton has positioned herself as a proponent of K–12 education, when it comes to STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — she’s been most vocal about needing to boost computer science literacy.
Citing more than a half million open jobs in the tech industry, Clinton’s campaign platform pledges to “provide every student in America an opportunity to learn computer science.” (The pledge is based on President Obama’s current “Computer Science for All” initiative.)
Clinton also supports creating schools — public and charter — that, in part, provide more opportunities for minority students to study science and technology, she told ScienceDebate.org.
To boost interest in STEM fields, she wants to promote partnerships between university research programs and K–12 schools, “makerspaces” (spaces where anyone can create and learn), robotics competitions and online education programs like those offering “nanodegrees” — certifications in specific skills such as machine learning and data analysis.
Trump has said little on science education, telling ScienceDebate.org that “there are a host of STEM programs already in existence” and that the federal government should “make sure that educational opportunities are available for everyone.” But the bigger issue, he says, is keeping K–12 education close to home. In January, Trump noted that, if elected president, he planned to reduce funding for the Department of Education, saying that “education should be local and locally managed.” In his campaign platform video on education, Trump called Common Core — a national set of standards for reading and math — “a total disaster.”
“We are rated 28 in the world,” he said. “The United States, think of it, 28 in the world, and frankly we spend far more per pupil than any other country in the world. By far it’s not even a close second.”
In March, Trump indicated that he wanted to have former Republican rival Ben Carson be “very involved with education, something that’s an expertise of his.” Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, has stated that he believes that evolution has “become what is scientifically politically correct” and has mentioned writing a book to refute evolution. He has also dismissed the Big Bang as “ridiculous.”
State of the science:
The United States is stuck firmly in the middle of the STEM education pack — 35th in math and 27th in science out of 64 countries, according to the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment. Despite spending 6percent of gross domestic product on education, the numbers of women and minorities also still lag in many STEM fields. Roughly equal numbers of boys and girls completed Advanced Placement tests in calculus AB and statistics in 2012, and 59 percent of AP biology test-takers were girls. But fields such as computer science (19 percent female) and physics (23 to 35 percent female) showed significant gender gaps. Racial disparities were also apparent. Of AP calculus AB test-takers, 6.1 percent were black and 12.6 percent were Hispanic. In computer science, those percentages dropped to 4.5 and 8.4.
Equality in STEM education isn’t just a feel-good issue. Women in science, technology, engineering and math careers earn 33 percent more than those outside of STEM fields — a significant step toward closing the wage gap. And a June 2013 fact sheet on women and girls in STEM from the White House Office of Science and Technology policy notes that STEM skills are increasingly in demand. The economic potential “is enormous,” it notes. “However, the administration can’t be satisfied when more than half the world’s population is not participating in this progress.” — Bethany Brookshire
Editor’s note: This story was updated September 14 and September 16 to clarify the description of the change in the vaccine schedule and research efforts related to the alleged vaccines-autism link (in Vaccines); correct the number of states participating in the National Violent Death Reporting System (in Gun Research); correct the characterization of Common Core and clarify which level of calculus has roughly equal numbers of girls and boys (in STEM Education); correct the name of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (in Genetic Engineering); correct the source of Hillary Clinton’s comments on Alzheimer’s research (in Health); clarify Clinton’s target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 (in Climate Change); and clarify the United States’ per capita emissions ranking (in Climate Change).