by Joe McCartney Waggle, Communications Committee
“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”
So began the worst-case scenario speech sitting in President Richard Nixon’s coat pocket as the Apollo 11 mission prepared to leave the moon in July 1969. The world watched Neil Armstrong leave footprints in the moondust, heard his breathless “one small step for a man” proclamation. Now, after almost 24 hours of moonwalking, the world watched again, fascinated, morbidly, to see if Armstrong and his crewmate Buzz Aldrin would step foot back on Earth or remain marooned in the sky.
Nixon and his speechwriters knew that the worst could happen, and that the nation would look to their leader for guidance through the tragedy. Perhaps in that moment, no one more than Nixon wanted the Eagle lander to reach the Columbia rocket and begin the arcing journey back to Earth. Such is the nature of politics: hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
Now, on the eve of what could either be the best or worst presidential election in modern history, the SKAT Communications Committee wants our readers to be prepared for the worst, and to give you all good reason to hope for the best. No matter where you totter on the political spectrum, there may be reason below to give you hope for a positive outcome.
“Others will follow,” said Nixon’s speech that never was. “And surely find their way home.” Let’s hope so, friends.
In Their Own Words
Democratic Party: Hillary Clinton/ Tim Kaine
Hillary Clinton is the only candidate for president from a major party to publicly announce that she believes in science. In 2016, this shouldn’t be a distinction, but unfortunately, it is. She also has the distinction of being the only candidate to be officially endorsed by a union of 70 Nobel Prize winners, specifically for her dedication to scientific advancement. She has publicly recognized that scientific and technological advancements are also advancements in “the health, safety, security, and quality of life” for all Americans.
Republican Party: Donald Trump/ Mike Pence
After the spread—and then deletion—of his infamous tweet calling climate change a hoax created by the Chinese to sabotage American industry, Donald Trump has kept questions of science at greater than arm’s length. On the other hand, he has run his campaign largely on the theme of increasing American competitiveness in the global market by advancing and trading on our technological capabilities.
Trump therefore supports innovation, linking it to greater economic prosperity and national security for America. But he has already warned that any research agenda in the Trump Administration would begin and end with a stakeholder meeting—including stakeholders in private industry. Research that doesn’t seek to “Make America Great Again”—that is, research that doesn’t increase manufacturing capacity, reduce reliance on foreign oil, or bolster military might—is deemed a “waste of limited resources” and therefore are unlikely to take priority.
Libertarian Party: Gary Johnson/ William Weld
After his gaffes about Aleppo and Mount Everest, it’s hard to predict what’s coming out of Gary Johnson’s mouth when he’s asked a question. It’s unclear if he even knows before he says it. But regarding scientific research, the Libertarian candidate has said:
We have made clear our commitment to reducing federal spending significantly. To do so, we plan to subject every program to close and fresh scrutiny. Our basic priorities will bend towards funding for basic science and limiting funding for applied science to that which has clear public benefit, but isn’t feasible in the private sector. The Johnson-Weld administration defines basic science as research that works towards understanding of fundamental issues at the core of scientific disciplines. We believe that in the case where applied science can produce a profit, the best thing that government can do is get out of the way, while providing safety regulations that cannot be covered by the investigating organizations’ Institutional Review Boards, Ethical Review Boards, or Research Ethics Boards. We believe that science is best regulated by scientists, not regulators.
Green Party: Jill Stein/ Ajamu Baraka
Green Party candidate Jill Stein has the distinction of being the only candidate who has not only gone on record saying that she believes in science-based governance, but is also the only candidate who identifies as a scientist herself. As a successful medical doctor, her scientist bona fides are sound. And running mate Ajamu Baraka has a long history of activism and humanitarian work, during which he engages regularly with social science.
Stein has had a habit, throughout her campaign, of remaining non-committal to taking a position on certain issues. She tends to support the majority consensus, but also pays lip service to contrary positions, even those at the fringes. She supports vaccines and the vaccination schedule for children, but thinks that anti-vaccination activists have “real questions.” She now accepts that there might not be a connection between cell phone use and cancer, but she still isn’t convinced that wireless internet in schools isn’t dangerous for children.
For President Stein, there are very few closed questions. She has already pledged that, as president, she would support research in all areas of scientific inquiry, up to and including the creation of whole new bureaus and bodies of scientific research. Her student debt forgiveness plan, on the other hand, would likely increase education rates in the United States significantly, if successful. This could be great news, but is more likely to greatly increase competition for only moderately increased research funding and federal research jobs.
Ultimately, the long-term health and safety of science, technology, and research in the United States will come not from executive fiat, but from Congressional action. With discretion over budget allocations and oversight guidelines, Congress can easily hamstring any federally funded office.
No one in the sciences can forget the three grinding weeks in 2013 when Congress, unable to agree on the language in the Affordable Care Act, failed to pass a budget, effectively shutting down all non-essential governmental operations at the federal level and in the District of Columbia. Science, despite our best efforts, is still mostly non-essential; during that harrowing period, all major operations ceased at NASA, NOAA, and a host of other federally-led research centers.
Therefore, despite their stated positions, the president most effective at protecting and expanding scientific research and technological development in the United States will be the one who is most capable of working with the Congress.
The outlook, then, is bleak.
Polling for the 2016 Congressional elections predicts a Senate that is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, and a House with a strong Republican Majority. If Senator John McCain’s recent promise to block anyone Clinton nominates to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court is an indication, the Republican Majority will use their influence in Congress to rebuild their tarnished reputation. The party once known for moral turpitude and common sense has suffered greatly from the circus-themed campaign of their presidential nominee, and many in Congress are ready to push beyond it.
The next president, then, must be able to deal with an entrenched Republican majority reeling from a brutal and often embarrassing presidential election cycle. Under these conditions, the Republican majority cannot afford to be perceived as uncooperative, but they can also not afford to appear too centrist. As the party of minority, Democrats will have a seat at the table, but will not be setting any agendas. Republicans will continue to chair science committees to the detriment of science (in the vein of Representative Lamar Smith), convene exploratory hearings to question the validity of government science (such as the hearings led by then-presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz last December) and serve on tight-fisted budget and appropriations committees (like Senator James Inhofe does so often now).
A President Clinton would likely be faced with an uphill battle in pushing her own goals through Congress. As a former senator, and as someone with thirty-plus years of experience in politics, she no doubt has many friends on the Hill, is owed many favors, and knows where many of the bodies are buried. But it’s unlikely that she knows where more than sixty bodies are buried which the lowest number of favors she would need to win a necessary majority in both houses of Congress. And if she did have that many nickels to spend, it’s unlikely she would spend them all on something like scientific research funding and technological development. She’s more likely to push issues that garner greater media attention and align more closely with her campaign promises, like opening borders up to refugees or increasing gender equality. Increasing the scope and funding of scientific research might be an important step forward for the country, but it won’t get her reelected in 2020.
President Trump would meet with equal resistance, but for very different reasons. During the last eighteen months of his campaign, he has worked hard to fashion himself as the Washington Outsider, the non-politician who knows exactly how broken and corrupt the system is because he has a long history of abusing it for his own benefit. That framing might work well with the “deplorables” who support him, but it has won him no friends in Congress. And, with few exceptions, he has chosen to fill his campaign leadership with fringe politicos and outsiders, none of whom can help wrangle a hostile Congress. His running mate, Governor Mike Pence, on the other hand, is a veteran insider, but with his eyes set firmly on his own 2020 presidential bid, Pence probably won’t be calling in any favors for his boss.
It is less clear what President Johnson would be able to accomplish with Congress. As a staunch libertarian, Johnson’s primary motivation is to shrink government. He has gone on record saying that he would slash—or altogether eliminate—federal offices like Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency. On the one hand, the spirit of this small-government effort lines up perfectly with the core values of the Republican party. On the other hand, a dramatic restructuring the likes of which Johnson has suggested is unfeasible for anyone to support, especially as it would mean the loss of thousands of federal jobs in a Congress led by the party of job creators. The only way a libertarian president could sidestep this obstacle would be to promote private-sector replacement jobs, including, perhaps, jobs in scientific research and development. Congressional constituencies that would support such a plan are rare.
President Stein, on the other hand, could affect some real, positive change in this regard. The price of this change, however, could be much steeper than for the other candidates. Her dedication to science, while laudable, tends to be single-minded, and her plans in this regard are much more fleshed out than her plans for other pressing political issues. It is conceivable that, in the process of pushing an agenda for expanded research funding or technology sharing, a unified Congress could negotiate her into a corner on other, more salient points. She could, for example, expand the scope and regulatory power of federal science, but in return be forced to advocate for stricter immigration laws. The sticking point of her campaign— “quantitative easing” and student debt forgiveness—is also much more likely to take precedent for her in such an arrangement.
It must be mentioned, however briefly, that none of these candidates will preside in a bubble. The United States has long been a world leader in scientific research and technological innovation, even only if measured by R&D spending. As the COP21 meeting in Paris last year shows, American commitment to solve global problems like climate change can pave the way for other countries to follow suit. And technology sharing, rope in the national-development-versus-ecological-protection tug-of-war that persists between more and less developed nations, is becoming more and more acceptable as wealthier nations pledge their share of commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Global health and safety technologies are also spreading, thanks in great part to American commitments to humanitarian aid.
The next president, then, must be capable of building on this momentum by working on a global platform that takes seriously the obligations of wealthier nations and the needs of less wealthy nations. And the next president must also be able to balance these questions of health, science, and technology with other matters facing the international community, such as refugee displacement, immigration, and continued anti-occupation conflicts.
Your idea of best-case, worst-case candidates will depend largely on your political opinions and your hopes for the future of US science. For many of us, it might be preferable to be stranded on the moon come November 9th. But no matter who you are, and no matter who you support in this election, it is more important than ever that you vote. We’ll see you at the voting booth.