Where Do the Republican Candidates Stand on Science?

A roundup of the views of GOP hopefuls on contraception, evolution, Internet freedom, and more.


From the Internet to bioscience and energy, science and technology touch nearly every aspect of our lives. Below, a look at the positions of the five remaining Republican presidential candidates on seven different science and technology policy issues: (1) emergency contraception, (2) biological evolution, (3) climate change, (4) shale gas, (5) nuclear power and waste disposal, (6) space exploration, and (7) the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The candidates are listed in order they are currently polling: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Rick Perry.

Mitt Romney

Emergency Contraception: The science question here is contraception versus abortion? Most research finds that the common method of emergency contraception—taking high dose hormone pills after coitus—works by interfering with ovulation, not implantation. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney in 2005 vetoed a bill that would make the morning-after pill available over the counter in that state and require hospitals to offer emergency contraception to rape victims. The legislature overturned his veto. During a recent debate in New Hampshire, Romney was asked if states had the right to ban contraception. He replied, "I can't imagine that states would want to ban contraception. If I were a governor or a legislator in a state, I would totally oppose any effort to ban contraception. So you're asking—given the fact that there's no state that wants to do so—you are asking could it constitutionally be done?" Of course, before the Supreme Court decided Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, states did ban contraception.

Biological Evolution: In 2007, he stated, "I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe." Romney added, "And I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body." While governor of Massachusetts, he opposed the teaching of intelligent design in science classes.

Climate Change: Flip-flopper? In his 2010 book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, Romney wrote, "I believe that climate change is occurring—the reduction in the size of global ice caps is hard to ignore. I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor. I am uncertain how much of the warming, however, is attributable to factors out of our control." In an October 2011 speech in Pennsylvania, the former governor became more skeptical: "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." 

Shale Gas: Romney welcomes shale gas production. "In Pennsylvania and neighboring states, we are seeing the tremendous benefits that domestic energy development can confer," he said. "Tapping the Marcellus shale deposits promises not only to supply clean and inexpensive energy to our country for the next century but also to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs."

Safety of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Waste Disposal: in an October poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans favor nuclear power and think it safe. Most experts believe that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada could safely store waste for up to one million years. In his 2010 book, No Apology, the candidate argues, "Nuclear power is a win-win; it's a domestic energy source with zero greenhouse emissions." Of course, if climate change is not a problem then it's just a "win." During the Republican debate in Las Vegas, Romney opposed the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal facility not on safety grounds, but due to local opposition, saying that the "people of Nevada ought to have the final say as to whether they want [it]." He also suggested that states might bid for taking a waste storage facility with adequate compensation. 

Space Exploration: In the December 10 debate in Des Moines, Iowa, Romney declared that he was opposed to Newt Gingrich's idea of establishing lunar mining colonies. However, back in 2008, Romney said, "I support the NASA program, the president's vision program, which consists of a manned space mission back to the moon, as well as an ongoing mission to Mars." He was talking about President George W. Bush's proposals for a moon colony and a mission to Mars. Flip-flop?

SOPA: The Stop Online Piracy Act would enable censorship of the Internet in the guise of protecting copyright. At a New Hampshire campaign stop last month, a small business owner asked Romney what he thought of SOPA and he responded that he was against regulations that kill business. Mark this down as ambiguously against.

Newt Gingrich

Emergency Contraception: Gingrich, like Santorum, Perry, and Paul has signed the Personhood USA Pledge in favor of an amendment to the Constitution recognizing embryos as people.

 In December, Gingrich stumbled with the pro-life folks, when he said that life begins at "implantation" instead of at "conception." He quickly backtracked. At an Iowa campaign event, a young woman told Gingrich, "I'm just a little concerned because I personally use birth control. And some forms of birth control would be outlawed if those personhood laws became the law of the land. So, do you support birth control, all forms of birth control?" Gingrich replied, "Any kind of pre-conception birth control would be legal. But I think post-conception birth control would be a form of abortion." As noted above, most research does not support the notion that morning-after contraceptive pills prevent post-conception implantation.

Biological Evolution: Asked in 2006 by Discover magazine if he regarded evolution as "just a theory," Gingrich replied, "Evolution certainly seems to express the closest understanding we can now have." With regard to teaching intelligent design in public schools, Gingrich added, "I believe evolution should be taught as science, and intelligent design should be taught as philosophy."

Climate Change: Another flip-flopper? Gingrich famously did a 30-second television spot with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in which he argued, "We do agree that our country must take action to address climate change." His 2007 book, Contract With the Earth, declared "climate change is supported by a wealth of scientific data derived from a diversity of measurement techniques," but added the he could not "be certain about the variance introduced by distinctly human activities." His views have evidently evolved. He announced a few days ago that a chapter by a Texas atmospheric scientist commissioned for his upcoming book on environmental entrepreneurs would be cut.

Shale Gas: In a February 2011 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Gingrich stated, "We now have technology that let's us go down as far as 8,000 feet, reach out as far as four miles horizontally. We can now produce commercially available natural gas from shale. We have an 1,100-year supply." In characteristic Gingrichian fashion, the former Speaker overstated the resources by 10-fold, but he is obviously enthusiastic about abundant natural gas supplies.

Safety of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Waste: In the 1990s as Speaker of the House, Gingrich spearheaded establishing the Yucca Mountain waste disposal site over President Bill Clinton's objections. During the recent Las Vegas candidate debate, he tempered his views. "When I was in Congress," he said, "I worked with the Nevada delegation to make sure that there was time for scientific studies. But we have to find some method of finding a very geologically stable place, and most geologists believe that, in fact, Yucca Mountain is that." With regard to nuclear power production, he favors streamlining regulations and focusing on the development of "a whole new generation of very small nuclear power plants, that are very, very safe." During a question and answer session at The Washington Post in 2007, when Contract With the Earth was released, Gingrich stated, "I would incentivize dismantling the oldest coal plants and building new nuclear plants. We may be able to get to a clean coal technology, but not in the near future. In the near future nuclear is a much better investment." Incentivize? 

Space Exploration: Besides being in favor of lunar mining colonies, Gingrich also co-authored an op-ed in 2010 praising President Obama's moves toward developing a commercial space launch industry. Gingrich also would like to use large monetary prizes as a way to leverage private firms into developing space capabilities. During the CNN debate in June, Gingrich did say, "If you take all the money we've spent at NASA since we landed on the moon and you had applied that money for incentives to the private sector, we would today probably have a permanent station on the moon, three or four permanent stations in space, a new generation of lift vehicles. And instead, what we've had is bureaucracy after bureaucracy after bureaucracy and failure after failure." Government space subsidies to private industry?

SOPA: Unable to find anything specific by Gingrich on this issue. 

Rick Santorum

Emergency Contraception: Santorum signed the Personhood Pledge. Leaving aside emergency contraception, Santorum worries about the moral effects of conventional contraception. In October, he asserted of contraception, "It's not okay. It's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be." Naturally, this comment produced a lot of alarm in some quarters. Santorum told The Washington Post last week that he thinks that laws banning birth control would be dumb "for a number of reasons. Birth control should be legal in the United States. The states should not ban it, and I would oppose any effort to ban it." He has called Plan B emergency contraception an "abortifacient." Again, most research suggests that it's not. 

Biological Evolution: In 2001, Santorum proposed legislation in the Senate that would have promoted the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. Enough said. 

Climate Change: Santorum is definitely a skeptic. "The idea that man, through the production of CO2—which is a trace gas in the atmosphere, and the man-made part of that trace gas is itself a trace gas—is somehow responsible for climate change is, I think, just patently absurd when you consider all the other factors," said Santorum in June. He added, ""It's just an excuse for more government control of your life."

Shale Gas: Santorum argues, "No new natural gas regulations, such as those being debated by Congress, should be enacted. The states are regulating the natural gas industry and there is no reason for the federal government to get involved."

Safety of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Waste: He voted in favor the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and still supports it. At an Iowa campaign event in June, the former senator said, "My position is that we should phase out all energy subsidies and create a level playing field." Presumably, this would apply to nuclear power. 

Space Exploration: He has a pretty thin record, but back in 1998, Santorum voted against an amendment that would have terminated funding for the International Space Station.

SOPA: When asked at a recent New Hampshire campaign rally if he supported SOPA, Santorum stated, "There is, and can be, a limitation on that. You know, freedom of speech.…They're not absolute rights. They are rights that have responsibilities that come with them, and if you abuse those rights… then you have a consequence of you using that right." Not a supporter of an unfettered Internet.

Ron Paul

Emergency Contraception: Paul has signed the Personhood Pledge with some caveats. During his first run for the Republican presidential nomination, Paul reportedly told the editorial board of the Kansas City Star that he opposed restrictions on emergency contraception and the so-called "day-after pill" because those decisions "have to be personal moral decisions."

Biological Evolution: Back in 2009, during a Reddit question and answer session Paul said, "With regard to evolution, I mean… I just don't spend a whole lot of time on this, especially in politics. 'Do you believe in evolution or don't you believe in evolution? Yes or no?' And then we'll decide whether you should be President or not." He did note that political controversy over the issue would abate if schools were private.

Climate Change: Paul has called global warming a "hoax." During the 2009 Reddit session, Paul noted, "In the last 10 years the globe hasn't been warming and the science is back and forth on this. Quite frankly, I think we spend way too much time on this issue, saying that if you don't support the thesis that we're in this period of global warming, somehow we don't care about the environment. What we should care about is pollution."

Shale Gas: Can't find anything specific from Paul on this topic, but he generally supports private production of all energy sources.

Safety of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Waste: Paul was one of the few members of Congress to vote against funding the Yucca Mountain waste disposal facility. He reiterated his view during the Las Vegas candidate debate. Paul says he wants to "lift government roadblocks to the use of coal and nuclear power." Paul also called the reaction of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan "overblown" but suggested that no new nuclear plants are likely to be built in the U.S. It should be noted that back in 2008, Paul sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy urging the agency to back a federal loan guarantee for NRG Energy to build two nuclear power plants in South Texas. In the Las Vegas debate, Paul argued, "The government shouldn't be in the business of subsidizing any form of energy. And nuclear energy, I think, is a good source of energy, but they still get subsidies."

Space Exploration: Paul voted against the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that enacted the Obama administration's new space policy, including efforts in the direction of commercialization. In 2008, Paul was just one of 15 members of Congress to vote against President George Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. Paul did, however, vote in 2004 for the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act. After Paul's congressional district was redrawn putting part of it near the Johnson Space Center, a group of Houston businesspeople met to explain the "value of the space shuttle" and Paul reportedly responded that "space travel isn't in the Constitution."

SOPA: At a recent campaign event Paul warned against increasing federal government threats to civil liberties. He added, "And they are planning more; they are planning the whole idea of controlling the Internet. They are saying that they are going to control piracy on the Internet, but what they are going to do is control your freedom and your privacy." His son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is definitely against SOPA. 

Rick Perry

Emergency Contraceptives: Perry signed the Personhood Pledge. I can't find anything specific from Perry on this issue, but do note that Texas law requires [PDF] hospital emergency rooms to provide emergency contraception information to sexual assault victims.

Biological Evolution: At a campaign event in August, Perry expressed skepticism, saying that evolution is "a theory that's out there" and that it's "got some gaps in it." Perry added, "Well, God is how we got here. God may have done it in the blink of the eye or he may have done it over this long period of time, I don't know. But I know how it got started."

Climate Change: Another skeptic. In October at a campaign event in New Hampshire Perry said, "I don't believe man-made global warming is settled in science enough."

Shale Gas: Perry is an enthusiast. In an energy policy speech in October, Perry asserted, "Right here in Pennsylvania, and across the state line in West Virginia and Ohio, we will tap the full potential of the Marcellus shale and create another 250,000 jobs by getting the [Environmental Protection Agency] out of the way. While Marcellus shale is today's opportunity, the deeper Utica shale formations offer equally vast potential with more jobs over the horizon for Pennsylvania and its neighbors."

Safety of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Waste: Generally supports. In 2008, Perry asked for federal loan guarantees to back the construction of two new nuclear plants for the NRG Energy's South Texas project. In October, he told Fox News that he had changed his position on federal loan guarantees to energy projects and now opposes them. In the Las Vegas candidate debate, Perry agreed with Romney and Paul and opposed the Yucca Mountain waste facility. 

Space Exploration: In July, Perry issued a press release criticizing the Obama administration for shutting down the space shuttle program. Perry vaguely added, "It is time to restore NASA to its core purpose of manned space exploration, and to define our vision for 21st Century space exploration, not in terms of what we cannot do, but instead in terms of what we will do." 

SOPA: I cannot find a specific statement from Perry on this issue, but the Texas Tribune reports that Perry opposes the bill. 

Most of the candidates for the Republican nomination appear to be against emergency contraception; skeptical of biological evolution and climate change; think that nuclear power is safe and has a role in producing energy in the U.S., but against storing the industry's wastes in a facility most scientists think safe; in favor of developing shale gas production; make space exploration something of a policy afterthought; and don't want to fetter the Internet. On the first three issues, the candidates' positions align with the views of the Christian right which plays a big role in Republican party primary politics. However sincere their beliefs, this tilt may come back to haunt the eventual nominee since majorities of the independent voters needed to win the election in November do not share those views on emergency contraception, biological evolution, and climate change

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.