Why I’m Giving Obama and Romney a B in Science
Scientific American and grassroots organization ScienceDebate.org have asked President Barack Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to respond to 14 questions on some of the biggest scientific and technological challenges facing the nation.
Romney fares better than you might think as Laura Helmuth says on Slate.While Obama has the “most scientifically accomplished administration” including physicist and MacArthur genius John Holdren as his head science advisor and a roster on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that is “lousy with university deans, officers of the National Academies of Science, and Nobel Prize winners,” Helmuth explains how Romney seems to have won the upper hand in this particular debate about science:
If you scroll through [the responses] quickly, one thing is immediately apparent: Mitt Romney’s team took this very seriously. His answers are longer, they have subtitles, they have bullet points. It’s not just great presentation: The Romney text is substantive, specific, and detailed. Obama’s answers to some of the same questions are single paragraphs that are vague, repetitive (two in a row start with “Since taking office”), and poorly written.
Indeed, Romney’s answers for some of the questions — (1) innovation and economy, (2) climate change, (4) pandemics and biosecurity, (5) education, (12) space — are much longer, offer more details and cite outside studies (by Harvard researchers in all three instances). Helmuth singles out Romney’s answer for “pandemics and biodiversity,” about the diseases like the avian flu and biological warfare:
This question is an invitation to show strong leadership, expertise, creativity, and a sense of urgency. Obama’s answer starts like this: “We all are aware that the world is becoming smaller every day.”
Romney nailed it. An excerpt of his answer: “To further improve preparedness, we must continue to invest in the best public health monitoring systems that can be built. I will also encourage advancements in research and manufacturing to increase scientific understanding of new pathogens and improve response time when they emerge. The development of new countermeasures, from diagnostics to antibiotics and antivirals to respirators, will help protect human lives in the face of new bugs and superbugs.”
But if you can get past the occasional tepidness of Obama’s remarks, you can see that his team’s main error is that they took too literal a view of the task and just answered the questions without brio, but thoughtfully. Romney’s answers stray from the topic, thereby enabling him to assert certain pet points.
Obama Has Plenty to Say But He Could Dress It Up Better
For instance, Obama responds to the education question about “what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy” in the most straightforward manner possible, by calling on efforts to “strength STEM education” in a simple, poorly organized paragraph.
Romney’s response looks great, with bold-face subject headings and bullet points, but a closer reading shows it to be a rehashing of his education platform, slightly adapted and complete with teachers union-bashing.
Obama succinctly describes his administration’s efforts to promote clean, renewable energy in response to a question about meeting “the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future.”
Romney starts his response by positioning himself as the champion of the middle class, careful to throw in the “independence” buzzword (“a crucial component of my plan for a stronger middle class is to dramatically increase domestic energy production and partner closely with Canada and Mexico to achieve North American energy independence by 2020″) and makes sure to mention he has a six-part plan and a white paper (we’re advised to check out MittRomney.com) with even more details.
Do Obama and Romney Make the Grade About Science?
Just as Romney’s love of using white boards to explain his platform’s policies (and running mate Paul Ryan’s of PowerPoint) has been oft-remarked, the bullet points and over-scrupulous attention to details gives Romney’s responses a properly wonkish look and feel. His team must have gone to pains to answer the questions but some of his commentary veers towards the rhetorical: “In a Romney Administration, sound science will inform sound policy decisions, and the costs and benefits of regulations will be properly weighed in that process,” says Romney about a question on science in public policy.
What, indeed, is “sound science” vs. plain old “science science”?
If I were assigning grades, I would put both Obama’s and Romney’s answers in the B/B+ range. Obama’s to-the-point responses answer the questions, but, as Helmuth notes, their solid and accurate content’s effect is lessened by a lackluster presentation, poor organization and weak argumentation.
Romney’s offerings certainly look as if they merit a higher grade. But the introduction of not-entirely-relevant topics and repeated attempts to turn the discussion back to a platform (decreasing government regulation, promoting the private sector) make one wonder, if the bells and whistles of bullet points were stripped away, what’s left?
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Graphic by Cain and Todd Benson