2016’s Top Presidential Science, Engineering, Tech, Health & Environmental Questions – Question 2


These are the responses of the 2016 Presidential candidates to the second of the twenty questions posed to them earlier.

I posted the responses to the first question (concerning innovation) at “2016’s Top Presidential Science, Engineering, Tech, Health & Environmental Questions – Question 1”.  I hope that you will take the time to look at these responses and offer your own thoughts.  My own thoughts and analysis are at the end of the post.

  • Research

Many scientific advances require long-term investment to fund research over a period of longer than the two, four, or six year terms that govern political cycles. In the current climate of budgetary constraints, what are your science and engineering research priorities and how will you balance short-term versus long-term funding?

Hillary Clinton (D)

Science and engineering not only provide the devices and services we enjoy and use on a daily basis—they also help defend against disease, security threats, unmet energy needs, the impacts of climate change, environmental degradation, and many other challenging issues with national and global reach. Advancing science and technology will be among my highest priorities as President.

Historically, federally funded basic research–often done without a particular application in mind and intrinsically long term–has yielded breakthrough discoveries of new knowledge and technologies. This knowledge and these technologies have, through the power of innovation, transformed entire sectors of industry, fueled economic growth, and created high-paying jobs.

I share the concerns of the science and technology community, including many in the industry, that the United States is underinvesting in research. Federal funding of basic research amounts to less than one percent of annual federal spending, yet it is an investment that pays big dividends. I believe it is essential that we strengthen our research capacity, by funding talented young investigators, looking for ways to prioritize “high-risk, high-reward” projects that have the potential to transform entire fields, and enhancing partnerships between government, universities, and the private sector.

Donald Trump (R)

The premise of this question is exactly correct—scientific advances do require long term investment. This is why we must have programs such as a viable space program and institutional research that serve as incubators to innovation and the advancement of science and engineering in a number of fields. We should also bring together stakeholders and examine what the priorities ought to be for the nation. Conservation of resources and finding ways to feed the world beg our strong commitment as do dedicated investment in making the world a healthier place. The nation is best served by a President and administration that have a vision for a greater, better America.

Jill Stein (G)

The greatest challenge currently before us is climate change. We will place innovative breakthroughs in the science and technology associated with mitigation of greenhouse gases and the building of a resilient society that can withstand current and future climate change at the very top of our research priorities.

Presidents are able to affect long term R&D priorities by creating institutions focused on research like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health that are to some extent insulated from short-term political cycles. We will revisit these institutions–their charge, focus, and operations–to ensure that they’re performing as expected. We will look for opportunities and mechanisms whereby science policy can be made more democratic, and more responsive to the preferences and needs of average citizens.

My thoughts

My first comment, before examining the replies of the candidates is that the question was phrased in terms of budgetary constraints.  To me, this presumes that certain items of budget will not be touched and I think that is perhaps morally wrong since the majority of the budget is directed towards items that work against the idea of research.

And we walk a very narrow line when we cast the outcome of our research in terms of defense and security, as noted by the funding for the science and mathematics initiatives of the 1960’s coming in terms of national defense.

Second, we do have to differentiate between basic and applied research.  It may be that applied research is more related to innovation, taking present ideas and moving forward with them.  But we have to understand that there is a need for discovery solely for the sake of discovery.  There has been an historical opposition for doing research that has no apparent outcome and is perhaps the single greatest deterrent to research (the debate on building a particle accelerator to seek the Higgs boson, for example).

To be honest, I don’t think that none of the candidates answered this question.  They all spoke to the need for research within the context of science and engineering but did not address how they would do it.

Clinton’s response, longer than the others, recognized the need for research and the need to find ways to fund research but left it at a need to fund it.

Trump’s comment was, it seemed to me, a throw away answer, acknowledging that there was a thing such as research but implying that it was something to be discussed later.

Stein’s response was more focused on an issue, an important issue to be sure, but one that did not response to the actual question.  Her answer was a response to a policy question and I fear implies the interjection of politics where politics should not go.  She was also wrong in stating that Presidents can create institutions such as the NSF and the NIH (both are historical agencies created by congressional action).

In the end, I think that none of the candidates focused on the idea of research.  This may reflect my own bias on the topic, of course, because it is the heart and soul of what I do.  And it may reflect a view of the world in present times where seeking answers to unknown questions is shunted aside for more “reality” based problems.  This suggests that there needs to be a radical shift in our priorities.

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19 thoughts on “2016’s Top Presidential Science, Engineering, Tech, Health & Environmental Questions – Question 2

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