Clinton Vows to Protect Science

Says she will reverse the political interference of the Bush years

Hats off to Hillary - she made a smart play yesterday, using the fiftieth anniversary of the Sputnik launch to expound on her science platform before a beltway crowd at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C.

Like all the other Democratic presidential candidates, Clinton wants to reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, but she has not been a particular leader in that arena. Yesterday’s speech could give her a boost, however. The event received ample press coverage and none of the other candidates seized on the auspicious occasion to promote their own science agendas.

Energy and environment have gained a new prominence in the current presidential campaign, but they remain largely subsurface issues because of the general agreement among moderate and liberal candidates that something needs to be done about man-made climate change. If the candidates are ever pushed on the specifics by the press, however, these science and energy issues could play a larger role in the election. Clinton’s well-timed address in D.C. was perhaps the highest-profile event specifically dedicated to science yet this campaign season. It certainly generated the widest breaking media coverage yet on the subject.

Clinton said that if elected she would ban directors of executive agencies from interfering with scientific research and lift federal limits on stem-cell research. She accused the Bush administration of waging a “war on science” over the last six years, a phrase she has used “frequently on the campaign trail,” according to an article in The New York Times. Patrick Healy and Cornelia Dean, who authored the piece, get what seems to be an exclusive phone interview with Clinton after the speech, during which she tells them, “When science is politicized, it is worse than wrong. It is dangerous.”

Wired magazine quotes a position paper (unfortunately with no title, link, or other useful reference) by Clinton: “For six and half years under this president, it’s been open season on open inquiry … And by ignoring or manipulating science, the Bush administration is letting our economic competitors get an edge in the global economy.”

“The Clinton attack on White House science policy is not especially new,” Healy and Dean write in the Times. But giving the attack (as well as Clinton’s other reminiscences about science) a lot of space in the press certainly is.

In its “daily diary” of the 2008 campaign, The Washington Post focused on the remarks Clinton made yesterday about her childhood fascination with the space program. Like many other publications, reporter Anne E. Kornblut also quotes Clinton paraphrasing Comedy Central anchor Stephen Colbert’s assessment of the White House: “This administration doesn’t make decisions on facts, it makes facts based on decisions.”

After the speech, MSNBC reporter Athena Jones caught Clinton chatting with two German college students and praising their chancellor, Angela Merkel, for her leadership in the climate change debate. Wired’s Sarah Lai Stirland found Al Teich, director of policy for the American Association of the Advancement of Science, in the audience and quoted him saying, “I was impressed. [Clinton] seemed to know the concerns of the science community, and she pushed all the right buttons.”

At the Times, Healy and Dean were two of the only journalists to search out a dissenter. They quote Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, accusing Clinton of the same scientific interference that for she faults the Bush administration: “Hillary Clinton says she will bring integrity to science, but on the campaign trail she manipulates basic mathematics in her attempts to explain how she will pay for hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending.” Healy and Dean tack Diaz’s criticism onto the end of their article in an obvious attempt to provide balance, but the reader is left wishing that Diaz, or the reporters, would have cited an example of Clinton’s bad math, if it is truly a problem.

Getting such specifics can provide an important check on political rhetoric, and journalists need to step up their efforts on this front. In reacting to yesterday’s event, only thought to mention what other candidates are saying about science and the environment. Clinton has called for a “Strategic Energy Fund” that would take windfall profits from fossil fuels companies and put the money toward renewable fuels research and development, but the rest of the pack has different ideas about how to mitigate climate change, and these need to be explored in detail.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.