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Science

Obama and Romney answer questions about science policy

With the U.S. economy struggling to gain steam and tensions flaring in the Middle East, discussion of science policy has taken a back seat in the presidential campaign. But a group of voters concerned about the state of American science has solicited the opinions of both candidates on a variety of issues related to research, technology, energy and the environment.

ScienceDebate.org — an effort supported by the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, the National Academies and the Council on Competitiveness, among others — compiled a list of 14 questions and posed them to President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Responses from both campaigns have been posted online.

Excerpts are printed below, with more to come in future weeks. The candidates’ complete replies are online at https://www.sciencedebate2012.com.

Science and technology have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since World War II. What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?

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Obama: We must create an environment where invention, innovation and industry can flourish. I am committed to doubling funding for key research agencies to support scientists and entrepreneurs. I have set the goal of preparing 100,000 science and math teachers over the next decade. These teachers will meet the urgent need to train 1 million additional science, technology, engineering and math graduates over the next decade.

Romney: We must reform America’s legal immigration system to attract and retain the best and the brightest. I will raise visa caps for highly skilled foreign workers, offer permanent residence to foreign students graduating with advanced degrees in relevant fields, and restructure government retraining programs to empower individual workers and welcome private-sector participation.

We must never forget that the United States has moved forward in astonishing ways thanks to national investment in basic research and advanced technology. As president, I will focus government resources on research programs that advance the development of knowledge, and on technologies with widespread application and potential to serve as the foundation for private-sector innovation and commercialization.

What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes and other policies proposed to address global climate change — and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?

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Obama: We have to meet this challenge by driving smart policies that lead to greater growth in clean-energy generation and result in a range of economic and social benefits. Since taking office I have established historic standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions from our vehicles for the first time in history. My administration has made unprecedented investments in clean energy, proposed the first-ever carbon pollution limits for new fossil-fuel-fired power plants and reduced carbon emissions within the federal government. We are also showing international leadership on climate change, reaching historic agreements to set emission limits in unison with all major developed and developing nations. I will continue efforts to reduce our dependence on oil and lower our greenhouse gas emissions while creating an economy built to last.

Romney: I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences. However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution and the severity of the risk — and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community.

The reality is that the problem is called global warming, not America warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed-world emissions have leveled off while developing-world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better, but it will not better the environment.

So I oppose steps like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system that would handicap the American economy and drive manufacturing jobs away, all without actually addressing the underlying problem. I believe we should pursue what I call a “no regrets” policy — steps that will lead to lower emissions, but that will benefit America regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize and regardless of whether other nations take effective action. For instance, I support robust government funding for research on efficient, low-emissions technologies that will maintain American leadership in emerging industries.

In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from emerging diseases, global pandemics and/or deliberate biological attacks?

Obama: I will continue to work to strengthen our systems of public health so we can stop disease from spreading across our borders. It is also important that should these threats breach our borders, our communities can respond quickly, effectively, with the greatest impact and with the fewest consequences. We have been working with the private sector to assess potential vulnerabilities. We can counter any threat we face, but we cannot face it alone. We must continue to work with our international partners, remain diligent in seeking out new threats, and prepare to act should a need arise.

Romney: 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. A robust public health system is only as strong as the tools available, and I will empower the private sector to pursue the breakthroughs that will equip society for the health challenges of the 21st century.

karen.kaplan@latimes.com

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