Science is "the endless frontier," as Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, famously declared in a report back in 1945. Since then, technological progress stemming from scientific discoveries has fueled a sixfold increase in the size of the American economy and more than tripled per capita incomes. Politicians of all stripes recognize the importance of science and technology to our future well-being.
So what does the official Republican Party Platform have to say about science and technology policy in various areas?
Research and Development
Republicans "support federal investment in basic and applied biomedical research" especially in the area of neuroscience which "that may hold great potential for dealing with diseases and disorders such as Autism, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's." The platform also oddly claims, "If we are to make significant headway against breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, and other killers, research must consider the special needs of formerly neglected groups."
Neglected groups? Women have a 1 in 8 lifetime risk of developing breast cancer; men a 1 in 6 lifetime risk of prostate cancer; and a 2003 article in the Journal of American Medical Association estimated the lifetime risk of diagnosed diabetes mellitus to be roughly 1 in 3 for males and 2 in 5 for females. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) spends over $1 billion per year on diabetes research, $700 million on breast cancer research, and $285 million on prostate cancer research.
The Republican platform also advocates "a permanent research and development tax credit" for corporate R&D. The current version of the tax credit encourages corporations to invest between $5 and $10 billion in additional R&D each year.
Republicans appear to be obsessed with the sexual and reproductive decisions of their fellow Americans. With regard to sex, the platform advocates “abstinence education” for teens, declaring that it is "effective, science-based, and empowers teens to achieve optimal health outcomes and avoid risks of sexual activity." For what it is worth, the platform does correctly note that abstaining from sex is "100 percent effective against out-of-wedlock pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS when transmitted sexually." Of course, abstaining from sex is 100 percent effective in preventing in-wedlock pregnancies too.
But is abstinence education "science-based" and "effective?"Abstinence education since 1997 has been supported by about $2 billion in federal funding, which is matched by state funding. In addition, its enabling legislation declares that, among other things, the abstinence education program teaches that a "mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity." That may be true, but is it science? Apparently because information about contraception and safe sex practices might tempt teens to experiment with sex, abstinence-only education programs generally may not discuss them.
Proponents of abstinence education can point to some studies that suggest that it is "effective," i.e., that it reduces teen sexual activity and out-of-wedlock births. But most research points the other way. For example, a study published in 2011 in the online journal PLoS One looked at the teen pregnancy rates in states with greater emphasis on abstinence-only programs versus those with comprehensive sex education programs. The study controlled for factors like socio-economics, ethnic composition, Medicaid family planning availability and so forth. The study found: "The more strongly abstinence is emphasized in state laws and policies, the higher the average teenage pregnancy and birth rate." Interestingly, the lowest teen pregnancy rates were found in states in which sex education classes discussed abstinence, contraception, and safe-sex practices. More information is better than less — who would have thought that?
Why bother trying to impose a specific type of sex education on kids, since presumably the GOP's school choice plank should make that issue moot?
The platform calls for "expanded support for the stem-cell research that now offers the greatest hope for many afflictions — with adult stem cells, umbilical cord blood, and cells reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells — without the destruction of embryonic human life." One assumes that "expanded support" in this context means additional federal funding for such research. The platform remains silent on the question of privately funded research on embryonic stem cell research. Is there scientific evidence that the GOP-approved forms of stem cell research offer the "greatest hope" for cures? Indeed, umbilical cord blood stem cells have been successfully used to treat childhood leukemia and a bioengineered trachea using a patient’s own adult stem cells has been successfully transplanted.
Induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs) are adult cells that have been dosed with factors that reprogram them so that they, like embryonic stem cells, can be differentiated into many different cell types. The research aims to take adult cells, say skin cells, from an individual patient and turned into IPSCs. The IPSCs could then be differentiated into young cells, say heart or nerve cells, and then transplanted to repair the patient's damaged organs. Researchers hope that, since IPSCs come from the patient herself, the patient's immune system will not reject the newly transplanted cells.
However, a 2011 study in Nature comparing immune tolerance of embryonic stem cell and IPSC transplants in mice found that mice were more likely to reject IPSCs, possibly because of abnormal gene expression in the IPSCs. Nevertheless, further research in IPSCs could yet yield cures. What the Republican platform fails to recognize is that the development of IPSCs depended on earlier research on embryonic stem cells that identified the biological factors that make them possible. In addition, research in mice shows that IPSCs can be turned into embryos, so someday human IPSCs might be used to produce healthy human babies. But perhaps this possibility is covered by the Republican Platform's stand in favor of a "ban on human cloning and on the creation of or experimentation on human embryos."