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."
The ban on the creation of human embryos would likely halt in vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques that have resulted in the births of five million babies worldwide since 1979. Why? Because IVF often involves producing more embryos than will be implanted so that the extras are discarded. In May, Mitt Romney’s eldest son Tagg Romney and his wife Ann had taken advantage of IVF techniques when they announced the birth of twin sons who were born using a surrogate. In 2010, the couple had another son using a surrogate.
The Platform flatly states that Republicans "assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed." The platform also supports a "human life amendment to the Constitution." Lots of left-leaning commentators declared that this meant that the Republicans opposed abortion even in the cases of rape and incest and when the life of the mother is imperiled.
Checking back, it turns out that essentially identical language has appeared in every Republican Party platform since 1984. The media outcry was certainly primed by Republican Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s ridiculous observations about the likelihood of pregnancy resulting from "legitimate rape." As it happens, the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment has kept track of the texts of the major versions of it (it’s been introduced 330 times in Congress) since 1973. Most of the human life amendments would allow an abortion "when a reasonable medical certainty exists that continuation of the pregnancy will cause the death of the mother." None of them, however, permit an abortion in the case of rape or incest.
The morality of abortion will not be decided by scientific evidence, but certain claims in the platform can be. For example, the platform states, “Numerous studies have shown that abortion endangers the health and well-being of women, and we stand firmly against it.” Is that so? With regard to health, a 2012 study comparing the safety of legal induced abortions with childbirth found, "The risk of death associated with childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than that with abortion." It is not surprising that some women do feel regret and perhaps guilt with regard to the decision to have an abortion, but a 2009 comprehensive review of the psychological evidence in American Psychologist found that "the majority of adult women who terminate a pregnancy do not experience mental health problems." In addition, "most women reported being satisfied with their decision to abort both one month and two years postabortion." It should, however, be noted that a new study from Finland suggests that women who have an abortion are at higher risk of later having a preterm birth.
The Republican Platform favors "an all of the above" energy policy (incidentally a phrase borrowed from the GOP by President Obama in his 2012 State of the Union speech). In his nomination acceptance speech last week Romney promised, "By 2020, North America will be an energy independent by taking invented (sic) of our oil, are coal, our gas, our nuclear, and renewables." Since 1973, most presidents and president-wannabes have made the same vow.
Encouragingly, the GOP platform declares, "Unlike the current Administration, we will not pick winners and losers in the energy marketplace. Instead, we will let the free market and the public’s preferences determine the industry outcomes." For instance, with regard to renewable sources of energy, the platform states, "The taxpayers should not serve as venture capitalists for risky endeavors."
Sounds great, but then the platform spoils the effect somewhat by noting, "No new nuclear generating plants have been licensed and constructed for thirty years. We call for timely processing of new reactor applications currently pending at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission." So does this mean that nuclear power is a "winner?" There is not a word about why taxpayers should serve as nuclear power venture capitalists by being on the hook for $17 billion in federal nuclear power plant loan guarantees. If solar socialism is bad, why is nuclear socialism OK?
More happily, the GOP platform does strongly back the production of natural gas through fracking and promises to "review the environmental laws that often thwart new energy exploration and production."
Quite sensibly, the Republican Platform favors "a policy of strategic immigration, granting more work visas to holders of advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math from other nations." After all, more than 50 percent of Ph.D recipients in science in engineering are students from outside the United States. Why send home the tens of thousands of scientists and engineers educated in America's universities who could jumpstart technological innovation here? If only the GOP would be more generous when it comes to policies that would enable other immigrants to settle here and contribute to the success of our country.
The Republicans evidently retain some affection for NASA, noting that the agency has “inspired generations of Americans” with feats like landing on the moon (more than 40 years ago). Oddly, there is no mention of the recent significant successes that privatization has brought to space exploration.
The Republicans promise to end the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) "war on coal" and encourage its safe development. While it is true that the EPA has issued new greenhouse regulations that discourage the burning of coal to produce electricity, the industry is fading chiefly because it cannot compete with cheap and abundant natural gas.
The GOP platform also vows to "restore scientific integrity to our public research institutions and remove political incentives from publicly funded research." That sounds good, but regulators have a knack for ginning up science to support whatever policies their agency happens to want. The platform also pledges to reform the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so the agency "no longer wastes U.S. taxpayer and innovators’ resources" on red tape and legal uncertainty in order to "ensure that the U.S. remains the world leader in medical innovation." After all, increasing FDA risk aversion has slowed drug development and escalated the costs of getting new therapies to patients.
Saving the best for last, while the GOP platform refrains from calling it a hoax, the term "climate change" appears just twice in the entire document. Both times it is cited only as a way to ridicule the Obama administration’s claim that a warming globe is a national security issue. Without bothering to address the scientific evidence for man-made warming, the GOP platform promises to "oppose any and all cap and trade legislation" and "to prohibit the EPA from moving forward with new greenhouse gas regulations." But even if the GOP were to acknowledge that the man-made warming is occurring, that would not commit the party to implementing draconian carbon rationing policies.
Finally, the GOP platform does make this stirring declaration: "Liberty alone fosters scientific inquiry, technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and information exchange." At least we can all agree on that, right?
Next week, I will take a look at what the Democratic Platform has to say with regard to science and technology policy.