Science as an Election-Year Issue Across the country, candidates are stumping on issues like terrorism and taxes. But what about science? Some politicians with a stake in mid-term elections are fighting over issues such as energy independence and stem-cell research.
NPR logo

Science as an Election-Year Issue

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Science as an Election-Year Issue

Science as an Election-Year Issue

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION's Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow.

In just a few weeks, many of you will go to the polls to cast your ballot on issues, such as the war in Iraq, taxes and education, and in some places, science maybe on your ballot.

Green energy, stem cell research, are two issues front and center in some of this fall's election battles. Take New Mexico, where both candidates from New Mexico's First Congressional District have come out in favor of increased federal support for stem-cell studies. And the Republican candidate has distanced herself from the president on this issue. In Missouri, the two Senate candidates are on opposite sides of this issue with a stem-cell measure on the state ballot.

It's no surprise that some California candidates are running on an alternative energy platform, but that sentiment has spread across the country where candidates in both parties are counting green energy initiatives. And this election year, for the first time, scientists are not standing by merely observing the outcomes.

More than 5,000 have signed on to a new organization, Scientists and Engineers for America, that will work to support science-friendly candidates and promote sound science on policy issues, such as climate change, stem-cell research, the environment and emergency contraception.

So we're going to start the hour today talking about science in the elections. If you'd like to join our discussion, you're more than welcome. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. As always you're welcome to surf or tour our Web site at for more links to this topic.

Susan Wood, an assistant commissioner in the Office of Women's Health at the Food and Drug Administration from 2000 to 2005. She's a research professor in the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University in Washington. And she's joining us today from our NPR studios in Washington. Welcome to the program, Dr. Wood.

Dr. SUSAN WOOD (Research Professor, School of Public Health Services, George Washington University): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Alexandra Witze is chief of correspondence for America at Nature - that's Nature Magazine, as you know - in Washington. She's joins us today, also at our NPR studios in Washington. Welcome to the program.

Ms. ALEXANDRA WITZE (Nature Magazine): Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Alex Witze, why is this year different from all other years in science involvement, scientist involvement in politics?

Ms. WITZE: So here we are at the midterms, of course. We don't have obvious showdown like we have at Bush and Kerry last time around in 2004. But in the number of the congressional races, science is playing a pretty major role.

We, at Nature, had some of our Washington correspondents go around and check out the campaigns and notify some of the ones where science is a major issue. As you notice stem-cells and energy independence are sort of buzzwords this year, in places from New Mexico to Missouri to California.

FLATOW: Now, we have noticed over the terms of this six-year term that the President Bush's administration has been in various grumblings from scientists - including other petitions, other kinds of letters being written. You've noticed that too, obviously.

Ms. WITZE: Yeah, you can almost say that this election cycle might be sort of a referendum on the Bush administration's position on science. I mean there's been six years now of numerous charges against the Bush administration perhaps using science for political ends more so than they should. And so a lot of people are seeing this as a kind of referendum, really, on how the Bush administration feels about science and how the voters feel about that.

FLATOW: Susan Wood, is that why you and your colleagues started this organization?

Ms. WOOD: I think in large part that is the question. We have the opportunity to restore the scientific integrity of our government. And I think that's important to people - whether they're scientists or not - that we have a government that bases its decision on the best available evidence and in the interest of people in the United States.

And because of the repeated concerns about what the different agencies are doing - whether it's the Food and Drug Administration or other parts of our health agencies, or our environmental agencies, or our energy agencies - there're these continuing questions about misusing science. Using it for -inappropriately, and actually misusing, you know, misleading data and inaccurate data in a way that isn't how, I think either the scientific community or the general public would like to see it done.

FLATOW: Let's talk about some concrete examples. And no better person than you to talk about one. Give us your experience or personal experience at the FDA and emergency contraception.

Ms. WOOD: Well, the emergency contraception story was one where the outside experts, and the medical profession, and all of the professional scientists inside FDA felt one way - which was that emergency contraception should be over the counter in order to prevent unintended pregnancies and help prevent the need for abortion. But unfortunately, it was the outcome - came out differently, which was to keep confusing the issue, keep denying the approval of it going over the counter, and delaying it for a matter of years.

We did have a recent approval of it over-the counter for those 18 and older, which is a partial victory. But it still goes against the evidence and the best interest of the public health. But it was a case - and certainly at the time of my resignation, about a year ago - my chief concern was the fact that the professional staff who knew the data well, and who were dedicated to the mission of the agency, and were really cared about helping getting a product to American women were completely overruled and ignored.

And that type of process is something that people should just stand up and object to. And in forming this organization we're trying to draw attention to the fact that the best way, at this point, is to make sure we have elected leaders who don't have to be scientists themselves but who need to be committed to the values that we all share about good science and good government.

FLATOW: What kind of proactive - or what kind of actions will your organization take to right some of the wrongs that you see? What kind of things could you be doing?

Ms. WOOD: Well, the first thing we're doing is getting our information and raising the issue in a few states where we can get to. But this is literally looking at the long term. So we're a grassroots organization, we urge all your listeners to join. It's free. We have nearly 6,000 members in just three weeks and it's a phenomenal response.

And so we're going to use our members to bring information to the public. There are events scheduled in Maryland, in Missouri, in Virginia, in Michigan - in order to draw attention to it. We may - hopefully we'll raise the money to run some small advertising, Internet advertising, that type of thing.

But our goal is really to raise this issue in a nonpartisan way. To say, in order to have a competent government, a transparent government, one that's making decisions based on the best available evidence, we need to have elected officials who are committed to those same values.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Talking with Susan Wood and Alex Witze. Alex, would you give us or give us a rundown - a little bit of a rundown of some of the races in which the candidates are focusing on science issues.

Ms. WITZE: Sure. Actually, just to take up from what Dr. Wood was saying, just there. One of the congressmen who has gotten a fair amount of criticism from some of the scientific activist groups has been Richard Pombo, in California, and he is being challenged by a wind engineer called Jerry McNerney.

And polls have shown them pretty much neck and neck. McNerney has campaigned a lot on clean energy issues. And some people say that he maybe making some traction along those lines because Pombo has been, I don't want to say controversial, but he's been criticized by certain groups. And so the environmentalists are sort of getting together behind McNerney to try and advocate his candidacy.

Some other states where things are going on: in Missouri, as you mentioned, there is a stem-cell ballot initiative, which, it doesn't sound like it would do too much unusual. It basically would give Missouri research, the same protection as federal research, for embryonic stem cell research. But that basically is a challenge to some push within the state legislature to introduce more restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research.

The Missouri Democratic candidate is in favor of this initiative. The Republican candidate is against it. But it's never a clear-cut partisan issue, as Dr. Wood mentioned. It split the Republican Party in Missouri. A lot of prominent GOP leaders have come out in favor of the initiative.

And the Senate candidate who has been against it has his own complex past. Earlier this year, he withdrew his name from a bill that would ban human cloning all together. So everyone has complex and nuanced approaches to a lot of these issues no matter what state you're in and no matter what party you are in.

FLATOW: Does that mean that the environmental issues have finally gained traction here in this country, as they have over in Europe?

Ms. WITZE: I think some would argued that they've had traction for quite some time, but it's definitely very prominent this year. For instance in California, the Proposition 87 is a $4 billion ballot measure that would create a research fund for green energy alternative energy sources. And that's the kind of thing we haven't seen in quite sometime.

FLATOW: And as you say it's not just a Democratic issue. There are Republicans on the green side also.

Ms. WITZE: Yeah, absolutely so. And on all issues, really. You mentioned at the beginning, New Mexico, where in the 1st Congressional District that includes Albuquerque - you've got the incumbent, who's Heather Wilson, coming out in favor of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research and going against President Bush's veto on that matter. Her opponent is Patricia Madrid who, as attorney general for the state, led a push for New Mexico to get involved in a climate change regulation with the Environmental Protection Agency.

So there you've got in one district, in one state, sort of, two key issues coming into play both - on both sides - both Democrats and Republicans.

Ms. WOOD: But it's interesting that all of these issues take on and come up in contrast to what's been happening at the federal level. We've been had - we've had this push back on stem cell research at the federal level.

The debate on global warming. When we hear the elected officials here - both the leaders in Congress and in the White House - saying that there's still a debate over the science. And we must, you know, using that - that there's scientific research needed yet to be done - using that strategy to delay real action. And I think that the - at least the folks who are challenging this approach - see that as using doubt and the need for more scientific research as a delay tactic, when in fact, there's enough evidence to move forward.

And if - we should having Congress already in a place where it's ready to take forward with our health, with our environment, some policy decisions that would really benefit us all. I think that's certainly part of our motivation and certainly what we need to continue urging other scientists and those who care about science to take action on.

FLATOW: We're to take a short break and come back and talk about this more with Alex Witze, chief of correspondence for America at Nature in Washington, D.C., and Susan Wood who is representing Scientists and Engineers for America.

Stay with us. We'll be right back after the short break with your questions. Don't go away.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about science in the midterm elections. Scientific research has emerged as a hot-button campaign issue as stem-cells and alternative energy sources have emerged from the laboratory into the hallways of Congress.

And, of course, this being just two years away from a national presidential election year, how will the outcomes of these races affect the 2008 Presidential Election? Will science remain a campaign issue? And what can scientists do to ensure that good science remains visible to our lawmakers? What does this big picture look like?

Well, here to put these issues in perspective for us is Thomas Kalil. He is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former deputy assistant to the president - to President Clinton - for technology and economic policy.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. THOMAS KALIL (Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress): Thanks. Pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. Do you think these issues will carry over to 2008?

Mr. KALIL: Yeah. Absolutely. I don't think that people will necessarily think about them as science and technology, per se. I think that these become voting issues when people see a direct connection between science and technology and some issue that they care about.

Can we develop clean sources of energy that reduce our dependence on Middle East oil? Can we find cures for diabetes or Alzheimer's? Will our children enjoy a higher standard of living than we do?

Those are the types of things that are going to get people interested. And the more that scientists and engineers can make the connection between scientific research and the integrity of the scientific process, the better luck they'll have.

FLATOW: Do you think it will depend on the outcome of this congressional elections this year? Whether the Democrats take over one or both Houses?

Mr. KALIL: Yeah. I think so. I think that certainly on the issue of scientific integrity, I think there is a difference between the two parties. I think even Republicans that have served under previous administrations, such as the Nixon and Ford administration, would tell you that they have never seen the level of political interference with the respected decision-making and respecting the role that science plays.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What does it take for a candidate to get interested in scientific research? Do they have to - are they poll watching? Or are they putting, you know, their fingers to the wind? Or do they generally believe these things to be important now?

Mr. KALIL: I think they believe many of these things to be important. I think that - again I think it's a matter of drawing the connections between the issues that face the nation and the world, and science and technology. I think obviously, you have a couple of members of Congress who are scientists themselves, and who are very interested in science.

I think you have - in the past, we've had other elected officials such as Vice-President Gore who have just had a deep and abiding interest in these issues. And so really emphasized during - these issues during his time in office whether it was the information super highway or for global climate change.

And you had political leaders such as President Clinton who understood that there was a real relationship between science and technology, on the one hand, and economic growth and job creation.

FLATOW: Speaking of Al Gore, do you think his global warming movie is a prelude and - to his entering the 2008 presidential race?

Mr. KALIL: I don't know about that. But I can tell you that he is very passionate about this issue. And I think that all of time that he's spending on it is really beginning to have an impact on what he is most focused on, which is how to bring this issue to the floor and to take decisive action before it's too late.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Speaking with Thomas Kalil who is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former deputy assistant to President Clinton for technology and economic policy.

Also with us is Alex Witze, chief of correspondence for America at the journal, Nature, in Washington. And Susan Wood, former assistant commissioner in the office on women's health at the Food and Drug Administration. She is now research professor in the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. And she is representing Scientists and Engineers for America.

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Any reaction, Susan, to what you've been hearing from Tomas Khalil?

Ms. WOOD: Well, I think the - all of these issues - they, sort of, play out in two different ways. One is science itself, in terms of the products that we do and the funding cycles. Are we funding our National Institutes of Health? Are we funding our technological development? What are these programs in NASA and so forth? And that's one aspect of science and technology that's, I think, is critical.

And the second aspect is, is within government, are we making the decisions -whether they are regulatory decisions or using our federal advisory committees who advice the different agencies on the policies in government that do affect people's lives. Are we taking it not - are we taking advantage of the good scientists we have in government? Or are we ignoring them and actually using it all incorrectly?

And I think, both of those play out in exactly the way that Tom said, which was - they have effect in people's lives. And the healthcare available to children and to our elderly, in our environment in the long run, in our energy sources. And all of those depend, both on developing the new knowledge and the new tools but also in making competent decisions in government by people who are not scientists but who depend on the information that's provided to them.

FLATOW: You mentioned that Scientists and Engineers for America, even though it's focusing now on this election cycle, is really in it for the long haul.

Ms. WOOD: Absolutely.

FLATOW: What do you see the - a presidential candidate, your kind of presidential candidate, dovetailing with what Tom said for the presidential election year in '08? You'll be working hard there, also, I imagine.

FLATOW: Yeah. I mean, as I said, this is a grassroots operation. And I think, elected officials may come to it with - already with an understanding of the importance of science and technology in government.

But if they don't, if they hear about it from their constituents, if people ask them from - wherever they're from, whether they are running for president or they are running for congressman - ask the question about a commitment to an open a transparent government that uses - makes decisions based on the best available evidence.

That kind of recognition, that people do care about this, can make a difference in who gets elected - again, in Congress or in - by the president. But that will take a grassroots effort by scientists but also by the non-scientific public to insist on a government that is responsible and competent in making these types of decisions.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Nigel in Jamaica Plains, Mass. Hi, Nigel.

NIGEL (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

NIGEL: I had several comments. First of all, I think that science is really being pigeonholed in this particular talk, as far as only relating to, you know, biotech and environmental stuff. I mean politicians constantly are relying on science as far as demographics and statistics. And I just think it's amazing that only now are they starting to realize - oh wait, scientists also have opinions and good data supporting things like environment, and energy resources, and all of this. And I think it's, for me, it's a huge factor as far as deciding what candidate I'm interested in - how they regard science, what, you know, what they decide to do with the information that science has given them.

And I think that that's a major factor. And I can't believe it's taking so long for the general public to come to this conclusion.

Ms. WITZE: Well, it sounds like you should a member of Scientists and Engineers for America. Go to our Web site.

NIGEL: Well, I mean I work in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am in the science industry. So, you know…

Ms. WITZE: Well, I would say you're absolutely right. It's actually is much broader than just these particular issue areas. It goes to whether you're working on managing a program, an education program. Or looking at the data on what works in education. There's lots of science and, again, a sort of competency that you want to have when government is spending money or making decisions. It's doing it a way that makes sense because of what we know.

So what we spend the money on will work. Whether it's a, again, an education program, providing services to people, any kind of project that the government is doing - that it's doing it based on what capable are evaluating the best available information. And that requires sort of a scientific approach to life, if not something specific to medicine or to the environment.

But it's very, very broad and that is certainly what we are all looking toward in having. Because we risk all of that, if we ignore that. And we risk not just our environment, but everything government does for our quality of life.

Ms. WOOD: And I would…

FLATOW: Go ahead, I'm sorry.

Ms. WOOD: Yeah. I would also just note that his point is really well taken. And even within Congress there are some congressmen and congresswomen who try to approach science - not through the traditional channels of serving on, say on a House Science Committee - but one of the things we have in this Nature special package is a Q and A with Rush Holt, who is a physicist from New Jersey in the House of Representatives.

And he specifically talks about why he didn't join the House Science Committee to do real specific legislation on science topics. But he realizes the need is for good scientific input on questions like, you know, how to do transportation planning, or how to get, you know, good voting and good elections taking place. So I would agree that that's very important point and some - that some people are taking to heart.

FLATOW: Would you be acting as sort of a, Susan, as a watchdog on science with your ears out to politicians making statements that, you know, blatantly wrong or have no scientific merit to them and issuing rebuttals to things like that, like Ralph Nader used to do when he was, you know, in his prime.

Ms. WOOD: I think that's certainly something that we would be able to do in the future as we grow - in that long term - to be able to be that kind of watchdog. There's certainly a lot of organizations focused on monitoring and measuring the problems, unfortunately, that we've been having in this arena over the last few years.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, I work at GW with the Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy Project, which is doing exactly that in terms of tracking a number of problems. And certainly - but not to the candidate level. So I think when we get to the level when we can put those resources there to do that that's something we want to do. We want to defend science and defend good science so that we ultimately end up with elected leaders who will carry this forward.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about science and politics this hour.

Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Jay in Eden Rapid, Michigan. Hi, Jay.

JAY (Caller): Hi. I'd like to know how science survives the fits and starts of the political nature of science issues now. I mean you've got global warming, which takes, you know, generations to plan and correct. And you've got the issue completely politicized. The most you've got is eight years on any one administration. And the next administration comes in and yanks funding and changes policy. How does science adapt and adjust to that when it's dependent upon politics for its money?

FLATOW: Tom, you want to take a stab at that?

Mr. KALIL: I think one of the things that the research community can do is to say these are what we think are the most important research parties in terms of addressing a problem like global climate change. So it might developing new technologies to improve energy efficiency. Or it might be new technologies that allow us try to capture carbon before it goes into the atmosphere. Or it might be the development of clean sources of energy that are carbon-neutral, such as solar or wind or bio-fuels.

And the research community needs to be involved both in terms of suggesting the most promising research topics, but also being willing to serve. I can tell you that Harold Varmus, who was the director of the National Institute of Health during the Clinton administration and was a Nobel laureate, had a huge impact because of the respect that he had both inside and outside the federal government.

So people of that caliber need to be willing to serve in these important positions.

FLATOW: We're talking about science in politics this political year on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

One thing that drives me crazy in political years is the polling data that we see. You know, we people who studied statistics and polls and things, we always thought that polls were objective. But you have a Republican pollster and you have a Democratic pollster and they all come up with different answers for the same or similar issues. That drives me crazy. It drive anybody else crazy? You know, where's the science in this?

Ms. WOOD: I think it absolutely drives everyone crazy. And that's why it's always I wake up in the morning of the day after election day and I think, well, who was right? Which pollster was right because it seems like an utter tossup sometimes to knowing which one was there.

Ms. WITZE: I guess the day of the actual vote itself.

FLATOW: There you go.

Ms. WOOD: One thing I think that'll be really interesting to see in this election, I mean we're talking how science is being made an issue in some of these races. And not only at congressional levels but also at governorship levels and ballot initiatives that we're seeing.

But the question is really whether voters are going to actually go to the booths and vote on those issues or not. I mean they may talk about them, they may join Scientists and Engineers for America, but whether they actually vote on them or not, we're not going to know that until the eighth.

FLATOW: How do we know what scientific issues voters are actually interested in? I've seen poll after poll and no science question is ever asked on those polls about topics of science, you know? How do we come away knowing what the voters are really interested in? It's always war and economics and things like that.

Ms. WITZE: Well, those are clearly the topics that dominate most people's minds. Depending on how you ask it, of course, you can sort of interpret it as being a science-related ques… (Unintelligible) poll, earlier this year that asks, you know, is energy independence important to you? Is global warming important to you? And global warming scored a lot lower than energy independence. So it's really just a matter of how you spin the words and what the phrases that you use this, quote-unquote, science or not science topic.

Ms. WOOD: I think that's actually very true. That the whole concept, as was mentioned earlier, that it's around what it is that people care about. And there is usually a science or engineering or technical or a competency aspect to it. And whether or not we'll ever know whether it was just the sort of that aspect of it that led to a particular vote.

The fact the people do care about these impacts, this part of their life, tells us that it is important that we continue to do the work to make sure that the science that informs those decisions, that the research that's necessary to go forward does go forward because people do care about them.

I'd also say I saw what the Plan B story, whereas the last year went by where we went from a situation where it looked like essentially the issue was lost. Plan B was not going to be approved over the counter. But as people became aware around the country about the complete breakdown in both the process and the evidence and the right thing to do, the complete breakdown that had occurred at FDA around this, it led to people lifting up their heads and asking questions.

Asking questions of their friends, the people they worked with, talking about it. And if we can get people just talking about it, ultimately you shift the discussion. You shift the center, if you will, toward the place where people, it becomes a priority. Something must be done, change has to happen, and we hope to see that happen on all of these issues.

FLATOW: Hang in there because we have to take a short break. We'll be right back - don't go away - with your questions and more from our guests.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking today on SCIENCE FRIDAY, finishing up talking about science as a political issue this year in the political year. Thomas Kalil, I interrupted you when you were about to say something.

Mr. KALIL: Yeah. I was just going to say that I think that this is also at some level a values issue. Do we think that things like free inquiry and vigorous debate and respect for facts and evidence are important in the way we make decisions. Do we think that it makes sense for people who have financial connections to the lead industry to be the ones giving us advice on childhood lead-poisoning.

So I think that there's also a very important values component to these issues.

FLATOW: I have one more question for all of you. Will you be watching closely the exit polls and the results of this election season to see if science was an issue?

Ms. WITZE: Absolutely.

Mr. KALIL: Yeah.

Ms. WOOD: Certainly I will but I also think, again, this is a continuing issue. So regardless of whether these particular exit polls tell us that definitively this is an issue for people, I do think those values that we share, whether they're the core values of science and they transcend to related values of people's spiritual or religious beliefs, there are common values of good education and good government.

And we need to continue to work on this, both in this election and throughout, ultimately so that we have a government that is living and acting out those values that were mentioned earlier.

FLATOW: Well, Susan Wood, you got the last word today. Former assistant commissioner in the Office on Women's Health at the FDA, and now research professor in the School of Public Health and Health Services at GWU in Washington. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Ms. WOOD: (Unintelligible).

FLATOW: You're welcome. Alex Witze is chief of correspondence for America at Nature, journal of nature in Washington. Thank you, Alex, for joining us today.

Ms. WITZE: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: And Thomas Kalil, our former deputy assistant to President Clinton for technology and economic policy and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. Thank you, Thomas, for taking time to be with us.

Mr. KALIL: Thank you.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.