Donald Trump’s brief answer to a question about scientific integrity in public policy, addressed directly to representatives of more than four dozen leading scientific organizations in America, begins as a bold tautology, even for Trump:
"Science is science and facts are facts," he wrote.
This is the kind of runaround he has given science and technology issues throughout his campaign, offering very few specifics in most cases and, in other cases, consistently undermining the science about issues such as climate change and vaccines.
On Tuesday, ScienceDebate—a coalition of 56 leading scientific organizations—got some more detail out of him, and none of it is reassuring. The group just released the answers from three candidates—Trump, Clinton, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein—to 20 crowdsourced questions from the scientific community that they believe address the most important science and technology issues facing the next president. (Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson didn’t respond.)
On issues from cybersecurity policy to nuclear energy to STEM education, Hillary Clinton’s answers are detailed but not incredibly revealing—given that she has already described many of her science policy positions previously in depth, such as opening access to scientific research, generating half of the nation’s electricity from clean sources by 2020, and creating a dedicated Public Health Rapid Response Fund for dealing with emergencies like Ebola and Zika.
Trump’s position page, on the other hand, doesn’t really touch on science or technology issues—though he has made his position as a climate science skeptic clear—so his answers to ScienceDebate are illuminating, contradictory, and, in some cases, frightening. For example, despite his declaration that "science is science," he tells ScienceDebate: "There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of ‘climate change.’" (Scare quotes are his.)
He then goes on to talk about other better uses of resources than dealing with what Clinton calls "a defining challenge of our time" and Stein calls "the greatest existential threat that humanity has ever faced." Trump says that investing in clean water, food production, eliminating malaria, and energy independence are all a better investment, as if all these problems aren't increasingly fundamentally linked to climate change in the first place.
Trump actually evokes the need to grapple with limited fiscal resources several times as a response to questions related to topics like public health and ocean health. Though it’s realistic to acknowledge inevitable future funding challenges, as a stated up-front policy position, this is a cop-out that basically tells you that these issues will be among the lowest priorities in a Trump administration.
For example, right now America is facing the spread of the Zika virus and the rise of antibiotic resistant infections that threaten to make the most useful medicines of the 20th century irrelevant in the near future. Asked about improving federal research and our public health system to "better protect Americans from emerging diseases and other public health threats, such as antibiotic resistant superbugs," Trump’s convoluted answer leaves the impression these issues are not a concern:
The implication of the question is that one must provide more resources to research and public health enterprises to make sure we stay ahead of potential health risks. In a time of limited resources, one must ensure that the nation is getting the greatest bang for the buck. We cannot simply throw money at these institutions and assume that the nation will be well served. What we ought to focus on is assessing where we need to be as a nation and then applying resources to those areas where we need the most work. Our efforts to support research and public health initiatives will have to be balanced with other demands for scarce resources. Working with Congress—the people’s representatives—my administration will work to establish national priorities, and then we will work to make sure that adequate resources are assigned to achieve our goals.
In other cases, he argues traditional conservative arguments for deregulation and a shift away from federal authority and toward the free market and state authority. He turns a question about improving STEM education into an opportunity to argue for charter schools and for gutting the Department of Education, and a question about agriculture policy into an opportunity to state that it is "totally inappropriate" that there should be central control of American agriculture by the federal government (never mind that most agriculture is heavily subsidized by U.S. federal taxpayers).
On other controversial issues, his answers don't make a lot of sense. During this campaign, as the Des Moines Register notes, Trump has recognized the importance of inoculations but in the same breath floated anecdotes that entertain the patently false conspiracy theory that autism is linked to childhood vaccines. To ScienceDebate, he offers this similarly tepid approach to vaccination policy: "We should educate the public on the values of a comprehensive vaccination program. We have been successful with other public service programs, and this seems to be of enough importance that we should put resources against this task."
On the opioid addiction crisis, Trump's first agenda item would be to stop the inflow of opioids into the United States—never mind that at least four times more people suffer abuse disorders related to prescription opioid painkillers that are perfectly legal in this country. He makes no mention of the need for better treatment, care, and drug abuse prevention programs.
ScienceDebate.org chair Shawn Otto says that the issues covered in these questions "have at least as profound an impact on voters’ lives as those more frequently covered by journalists, including candidates’ views on economic policy, foreign policy, and faith and values." Since we won't be hearing much about science topics in the televised debates, it's worth exploring all of the candidates answers in detail here.
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