Obama and Romney Tackle 14 Top Science Questions


Scientific American partnered with grassroots organization ScienceDebate.org earlier this summer to encourage the two main presidential candidates–Barack Obama and Mitt Romney–to answer 14 questions on some of the biggest scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. President Obama and Governor Romney have now answered these Top American Science Questions, which you can read below.

Editors will grade the candidates’ answers for SA’s November issue, which will be available on the iPad and in print in mid-October.

In the meantime, we need your help with this project. Do you find that the candidates’ answers adequately address the thrust of the questions or do they sidestep important issues? Do the answers put forth concrete solutions? Did you find any of the answers particularly helpful or surprising?

Written By: The Editors
continue to source article at scientificamerican.com


  1. So Romney’s stock Republican panacea for every question was deregulate, remove almost everything from the Federal Government and move it to the private sector… ad nauseam.

    I suppose if you drank the -Government is evil, competitive private sector is always best- Kool Aid, then his answers appeal to you.

    Obama’s answers were canned political answers with few details- but still favorable to Romney’s.

  2. The questions and the candidates’ answers to them together total 9,000 words, so I wouldn’t want to line-by-line dissect them, and I don’t think people here would want to read any such attempt either. Instead I will offer a few general points. (Bear in mind I’m not American, so maybe my views aren’t wanted.)

    Romney’s concession of anthropogenic climate change is better than should be expected of modern Republican politicians, although he is wrong to claim the consensus still isn’t there; he ignores the fact that, although China’s total emissions slightly exceeded those of the US, on a per-capita level the US is over three times the emitter China is; and his “if we punish emissions other countries will cancel it out” argument is silly because it assumes that (a) the future energy needs of the developing world will match the current energy needs of the world as a whole and (b) the developing world will rely as heavily on fossil fuels for their energy as developed nations traditionally have. But anyone who is familiar with Africa’s current energy development knows (b) is wrong. While Romney’s emphasis on better technologies is good in principle, the technologies needed to completely abandon US CO2 emissions already exist, and his No Regrets stance (his choice of words) means his ultimate policy is to do nothing at all about the American contribution to climate change.

    I was puzzled when Romney said, “the EPA estimates that the rule will cost $10 billion to reduce mercury pollution by only $6 million”. $6,000,000 worth of what? I would appreciate hearing from someone with relevant expertise what the relevant level of pollution production has to *do* with $6m. From the little research I have done on the issue since I read this comment of Romney’s, it seems to be saying that the healthcare costs of responding to the detrimental health effects of these levels of mercury pollution are $6m. I would love to know, however, what the total cost of such medical afflictions would be, which is why I would appreciate someone else’s expertise. If mercury poisoning harms me in a way which makes me less able to earn wealth or take care of myself or my dependents – or if it even kills me, thereby costing my dependents hugely in the long run – but medicine can do so little for me that very little taxpayer money is spent during my first post-poisoning journey to the hospital, the real cost to the nation of my misfortune is far greater than the immediate medical costs suggest. Could someone who knows this issue properly say how the $6m figure should really read?

    Romney frequently accuses regulation of being responsible for how little production has been achieved, but he never gives evidence of that.

    Both candidates were quite vague in many of these answers. Romney’s answers were often longer, but I think this is mainly due to Obama answering “What would you do?” questions with “This”, while Romney answered, “Doing the right thing on that issue is important for these reasons, so I would do this”. Unfortunately, reminding us of the reasons these matters are important is much less informative than getting to one’s own policies.

  3. Jos Gibbons, I think you are right about the “6 million” on the mercury issue.

    Page 683 of  this EPA document mentions it: http://www.epa.gov/mats/pdfs/2

    Ironically, page 106 of the same document has the same 11 billion vs. 6 million argument. 

    So I think it is a health-savings of some kind. 

  4. I guess we have the ability to reply directly now!

    I think you are right about the “6 million” on the mercury issue.
    Page 683 of  this EPA document mentions it: http://www.epa.gov/mats/pdfs/2…, page 106 of the same document has the same 11 billion vs. 6 million argument.  So I think it is a health-savings of some kind. 

  5. I like how Rmoney’s answer to the Climate Change question started with the classic denier “I’m not a scientist” quip.  Yeah, we know you’re not a scientist, but would you actually be willing to listen to one for five minutes before having to consult with an oil exec?

  6. definitely soft ball questions

    I think direct questions should have been asked, like “Do you fully accept the science communities’ consensus on
    Anthropogenic Climate change and if so, exactly how will your policies reflect this?

      and “Do you think Creationism is an opposing view on par with Darwin’s Theory (of Evolution through Natural Selection) that should be taught in the science classroom?”

    Those are perfectly fair questions, I think, but our wimpy right leaning country would shy afraid of hard questions like that. It’s a real shame.

  7.  I forgot to mention- sadly, I am happy that Romney accepts Anthropogenic Climate Change (although he qualifies it with the erroneous “consensus” crap).

    It’s sad that the USA is so ignorant that Romney’s acceptance of that is considered a point to relish.

    I’m going to do my best to keep Romney from winning- but he was by FAR the best of the ignorant Republican candidates that we had.

    Regardless of how he is speaking (to the Republican right) he is a moderate compared to the average right wing in this conservative country.

  8. Am I the only person to be depressed by both candidates’ responses?

    Both used the questionnaire as an opportunity to send in answers that are no more then condensed, plagiarised, text from their political pamphlets.

    Given how close the race is – according to polls – it’s no surprise that both go out of their way to make sure that they don’t upset anyone.  Even so their answers on the growing problem of children not being immunized were so craven and self-serving … words fail me.  Both candidates left themselves wide open to a real, science-based, political hiding on that point.

    Romney’s answers exposed an anti-science agenda which is frightening – and I mean scary-as-hell.  He repeatedly called for data from science studies to be made available, and stated that science could only influence politics – not guide it.  He appears to mean that, as President, he would sit on the peak of the mountain and debate the seismic data …  Clearly if a lobbyist tells ‘President’ Romney to look the other way – using ‘the data’ and a shill with a PhD in sociology and no day job – the only way Mitt will agree that the science must guide policy is when the lava explodes through his ass and burns out his brain.  That would be funny, except that the rest of the US will be forced to sit right next to him …

    Obama’s answers used the word ambitious so often I lost count.  In addition, while I understand that now is the best time to highlight what he has done, he (or his team at any rate) answers in such a way that he appears to be a complacent braggart begging for just a little more time to get it right.  It does not inspire confidence.

    Romney’s answers were very libertarian – apparently the only good regulation is an ex-regulation.  Being of a libertarian stripe myself I have some sympathy with this – but Romney went so far on this crying jag he left me thinking; Hey, Mitt, ever hear of rules of the road?  Bet you won’t be drivin’ on the left on your way home.  Am I right?

    Meanwhile Obama is only too happy to help Romney out by talking Government regulation this and Government subsidy that.

    Obama did better on education – he at least attempted to answer the question.  Romney was all over the place with ideas that sounded great.  Then you sit back and you realize; hey, he has no clue.  Romney is full of noise and energy on science education – but has no substance in his rhetoric or proposals.  Both candidates try to say do A and we will all be better educated in science.  But Romney’s A seems to be hot air.  I could find no evidence for Romneys policies – like favoring choice – actually delivering … anywhere, any time.

    If there’s a prize for ‘answering a different question’ it’s a close run thing, but I think Romney wins by a nose.

    On balance it seems I put Obama ahead – but only just.

    Still, the absence of answers from either candidate that really hit any nails on the head was … depressing.

    Are we still in the 21st Century?  I didn’t slip backwards through a wormhole did I?



  9. My thoughts (see original article for the full questions):

    Obama – Glad to hear the aim for more STEM grads. Even more pleased to hear a plan for acheiving it – pushing for 100,000 extra science and maths teachers. Good start.
    Romney – Deregulate, deregulate, deregulate, psstsn’t Obama terrible?psst. A passing mention at the end for helping boost science but of course, just leave it to the private sector. What a surprise!

    Winner: Obama.


    Obama – Slight step back. Encouraging to hear him admit the problem and enforce the positives he’s made in the past 3 years or so, but no real mention of what next. A bit afriad to rattle cages I suspect, but if he carries on into his next term in the same vein, it should hopefully be positive.
    Romney – Straight out with the ‘I’m not a scientist’ get out clause, a quick ‘oh yeah, I guess it’s happening, but we don’t know how badly’ excuse to put it on the back burner for now rather than, I don’t know, listening to the scientists maybe, pssthasn’t Obama’s term been awful?psst? You know, as you’re not one yourself? Then he just carries on with putting American businesses first (can’t hurt the coal industry!) and essentially hoping either a) they’ll choose to do the right thing, or b) some entrepeneur will come up with a great new technology to solve it and make loads of money for the economy so both sides win! So a) if they don’t? b) that doesn’t happen? Pathetic answer.

    Winner: Obama

    Obama – OK, I get it Obama, you’re really proud of what you’ve acheived so far, but what next? Other than mentioning investing more than 3% GDP to equal or better the height of the Space Race, there’s very little of substance here.
    Romney – Didnt’ Obama waste money? He could have spent it so much more effectively. On the plus side, he at least acknowledges a Harvard study recommending research investments and crucially that innovation must be able to step up from lab to industry. Whether or how he’ll do these is another matter because after that it descends back into his usual Give-the-torch-to-the-private-sector-doesn’t-Obama-waste-our-money spiel.

    Winner – Not much to choose from here. Double KO.

    Obama – It’s bad isn’t it? Needs to be stopped, definitely. Should we talk to the private sector about it?
    Romney – It’s bad isn’t it? Needs to be stopped, definitely. Only the private sector can save us, and didn’t Obama set that back light years?

    Winner: Naff all said by either side.


    Obama – That’s a bit more like it! Reinforcing the need to push STEM education. Mentioning the 100,000 extra teachers and targetting 100 sites. Recognising the need for this to occur in both the public and private sector and actually talking about expanding on what he’s already built rather than resting on laurels.
    Romney – Must do better, must do better, must do better (repeat for about 3 paragraphs). How? Well, I’ve said some things. you can find a report on it if you want. We can’t increase spending though. Oh and children need innovation and choice… Plus points for actually refraining from slagging off Obama directly for more than 2 paragraphs. But ultimately, whilst he didn’t mention them by name, we all knew it came down to ‘turn it over to the private sector’.

    Winner – Obama


    Obama – Look at me! Didn’t I do well on this in my last 3 years?
    Romney – OK, fair play for actually putting down a 6 point plan. Plus points for only ONE of these to put all faith in the private sector. But seriously, promoting energy developments in all areas? Mitt, you DO KNOW that means private sector companies will just embrace coal, oil and gas because they are the most profitable don’t you? They won’t last, but by that time the CEO’s will just jump ship with their riches. You’ll also be out of office though I guess, so it doesn’t really matter, does it? Oh yeah, P.S. Obama sux!

    Winner – Obama gets it because, even though all he did was crow over what he’d done so far, if he continues with it, there’s at least progress in this area.


    Obama – Very positive! Increase organic food, reduce use of pesticides. Make sure better pesticides become available quicker. Targets and deadlines being set and most positively, mentioning these targets were all actually science based!
    Romney – Also fairly positive. First time he’s actually acknowledged the need of the government to, you know, actually DO anything rather than turn everything over to the private sector. In fact, he’s even talked about regulation!

    Winner – Obama gets it – he actually mentioned where that regulation will come from. And it was the best possible source.


    Obama – Quite a lot of ‘what we’ve already done’ again, but talking about continuing in similar, positive, fashion at least.
    Romney – Recognises the needs for laws to be updated as new evidence comes into play. Recognises the need for regulation and both for private and public sector work. The emphasis however, still seems to be the economy rather than the environment.

    Winner: Romney. Just – it is a bit of a concern that those updatings he mentioned will be set according to the short term needs of the private sector rather than the long term needs of the American (and indeed World) population.

    Obama – Bit of a mish-mash of terms here. Fight piracy, protect speech, increase security, protect freedom. You’re juggling a lot of balls here Barack, and you don’t appear to have made any clear statement of how you intend to actually catch any of them.
    Romney – Obama was terrible on this one! The internet must remain free – for private companies to benefit from it! Deregulate! For the power of the private company! Down with that smelly Obama!

    Winner – None – neither really tried to go for it. One set several targets, fired no arrows at any. The other just used it as a platform to waffle on about his fave subjects. How great the private sector is and how awful Obama is.

    Obama – ‘We’ve done this, we’ve done that, we will continue to do so’. Same repetitive, if step-in-the-right-direction, spiel.
    Romney – Hmm, many questions should be asked here, like what role should federal government play? That’s right Mr Romney, that’s why we asked the question. It was sort of in the hope you’d answer it!

    Winner – Obama by default for being the only one to fill the answer sheet in.

    Obama – Still a lot of falling back on past glories, but made the excellent acknowledgemeny that policy should be made according to science rather than ideology. Also that decisions should me made according to all available scientific data and that data should not be subject to distortion or manipulation.
    Romney – Private sector interests trump what science says is best.

    Winner – Obama by a country mile!


    Obama – Much more ‘I-fixed-it-let’s-not-break-it’.
    Romney – Space is cool innit! Especially for the private sector.

    Winner – Nothing really to choose from.


    Obama – Positive talk about not allowing private sector companies to break the rules for their own gain as well as working with countries like Japan and China for solutions that work for all. Good (if ambitious) targets.
    Romney – Well, to be more energy secure, we need to look for alternatives and how to get hold of them easier. hmm, I notice oil companies seem to have a lot of unnecessary red-tape stopping them from drilling…

    Winner – Are you kidding me Romney? Obama all the way on this way.

    Both – Vaccinations are good and the American people need them.

    Well, duh? How to supply them? How will new ones be developed? How do you counter superstitious opposition?

    Winner – Dead Heat!

    Overall, Obama ducked a lot of questions by simply proudly going over what he’d done already. In many ways he had that advantage over Romney – being able to point to his previous track record. Romney’s only solution seemed to be, however, just continually berating Obama whilst turfing as many things over to the private sector as possible; leaving me in some doubt at times whether he actually saw any role for the government at all! This became increasingly worrying in some areas such as education and climate change where people on this site will be all too aware what happens when vested interests try and sneak in. Fortunately on some of these areas Obama actually started coming out the blocks and stating some goals, targets and commitments. How much of them his opposition would let him go through with is another thing of course, but overall, for me Obama is the clear cut winner of this little exercise.

  10. Well, there was Huntsman who was running as “the sane guy” and so got knocked out pretty quickly. What he’s really like is hard to tell. He seems a bit like McCain before his tea-partification in terms of political outlook.

  11. “Romney accepts Anthropogenic Climate Change”

    You ARE kidding, right? NO WAY does he; read between the lines- his and his party’s true principle is ‘growth at all costs and to hell with the consequences’. He and his kind have no future plans.

  12. Somewhat off-topic (but a sacred cow to US citizens) – 

    The ONE policy that would be the biggest step in reformatting the US economy is so obvious- force Americans to pay a realistic price for “gas” as they call it. Substantial increases in federal tax on gasoline would 
    1. Reduce consumption
    2. Encourage more efficient vehicles
    3. Raise revenues enough to dramatically reduce the deficit 
    4. Raise American awareness of the true value of petroleum products
    5. Reduce co2 and other emissions 
    6. Reduce importation costs 
    7. Lessen foreign oil dependence-

    And probably a dozen other gains I can’t think of right now.

  13. There could be many things to say about the candidates’ answers, but the thing that stood out in Romney’s answers was the willingness to allow parents increased choices in the education of their children. That’s clearly double speak for allowing parents to choose what kind of information is right for their kids based on their personal world views.

  14. For non US citizens I just want to point out that Romney is the most egregious double talker in the history of US politics, and that is saying something. He will literally say one thing one day and contradict it the next and of course what he says is always tailored to please whatever audience he is addressing at the time. 

    So I wouldn’t put much stock in anything you can find positive in his answers to scientists. I guarantee you when he talks off the record, and even possibly on the record to other audiences he will contradict himself. 

    Some examples: when he ran for the Senate in Massachusetts (a very liberal state) he said he was “more pro choice than Ted Kennedy” now he is against virtually all forms of legal abortion. When he was governor of Massachusetts he developed a healthcare reform program that was the model for the Obama Affordable Care Act. Now he calls that bill a terrible idea and socialism. Here are links to more examples:



  15. Regarding climate change in October 2011 Romney said:

    “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.”
    From: http://www.rollingstone.com/po

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