Same Ol’ Science Platforms

Points for trying, but Nature gets nothing new from the candidates

With the economy going to pot, it’s not surprising that the presidential candidates haven’t devoted much time to issues of science—R&D funding, education, stem cells, oceans, etc.

Thankfully, that hasn’t stopped reporters from poking and prodding as much as possible. The most recent example of that initiative is the journal Nature’s attempt, published Wednesday, to get the candidates to answer a series of submitted questions on climate and energy. It is a commendable effort, but, unfortunately, at this point it seems that journalists are just reprinting the candidates’ same answers, unable to obtain new insights into their positions.

That isn’t necessarily reporters’ fault—after all, only Barack Obama bothered to respond to Nature; John McCain failed to reply—and it certainly doesn’t mean that the distinguished journal should not have published the information it had. Given the candidates’ reluctance to broach scientific topics on the campaign trail, it doesn’t hurt for publications to rehash existing material, whether or not they are able to contribute fresh information. Nonetheless, if a news outlet is going to bother submitting a list of questions to the candidates this late in the game, it should try to phrase its questions so that they stand the greatest chance of provoking a novel response. Take, for example, the following questions submitted by Nature:

• What methods would you support to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions? Are you in favour of a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system, or some combination of the two?

• How much would you be willing to invest in developing and deploying alternative and renewable energy technologies?

• Where does nuclear power fit in with your vision for the US energy plan? And how do you plan to tackle the problem of nuclear waste?

Come on. Both Obama and McCain have reiterated their basic plans for cap-and-trade, renewable energy, and nuclear many times over, and this information is available at scores of news pages, in addition to the candidates’ own Web sites. These issues beg for more detailed exploration. Nature could have rephrased its questions to read something like this:

• We know your basic outline for cap-and-trade, but do you favor inclusion of any one of the so-called “safety valve” measures that would put a ceiling on the price of carbon? Or better yet, if cap-and-trade fails, do you support using the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions instead?

• We know, broadly, how much you plan to spend (and not spend) on renewable energy, but there is a classic chicken-and-egg problem between producers and suppliers, which exists in both the transportation and utilities industries. The former want the latter to invest in storage and transmission capacity before they invest in research and development; the latter want the opposite. At the federal level, how do you plan to help break that impasse?

• We know your general feelings about the potential for nuclear’s role in our energy economy, and your plans for and concerns about waste. But financing has plagued nuclear development just as much as worries about security and disposal. In fact, it is likely that nuclear would need even more government support than technologies like wind and solar. How far would you go, as president, to help make nuclear financially viable?

Who knows? Politicians are, if nothing else, artful dodgers, and they might have ducked these questions as well. Indeed, one of Nature’s better queries— “Would you support a ban on new coal-fired power plants that do not incorporate carbon capture and storage,” which was a good twist on the more standard “What role do you see coal playing in America’s energy future”—failed to provoke an interesting response. What is certain, however, is that most of the questions, as Nature phrased them, were guaranteed to produce the same canned responses readers have seen before.

Another thing that surely thwarted a better response is that the journal posed the exact same queries to both candidates, which seems absolutely ridiculous. Henceforth, questions must be tailored to the individual candidates, taking into consideration their previous statements and different positions.

More interesting than Nature’s presentation of the candidates’ (that is to say, Obama’s) answers to its questions is a corresponding analytical piece on the challenges that either candidate will face in achieving his policy goals as president. It would have been interesting if, instead of posting the candidates’ positions in a different article, Nature had woven them into its analysis. The other thing the journal could have done to better serve readers (especially given the McCain’s camp’s failure to respond to its questions) would have been to spotlight a similar question-and-answer exercise recently published by Science Debate 2008.

The efforts by that group—which comprises a very impressive list of scientists, academics, journalists, politicians, and business figures—have been perhaps the most fruitful to date. Both Obama and McCain replied (though notably, McCain took two weeks longer than Obama to submit his answers). That said, the group’s campaign, in itself, shows just how hard it is to “get more” out of the candidates. Obama and McCain declined an actual debate, the group’s main goal, and Science Debate 2008 has lobbied for months to get responses to its fourteen submitted questions. The answers they finally received are detailed and worth reading, but close evaluation shows that even they don’t go too far beyond what Obama and McCain have already stated in online platform positions (though this is less true for McCain, whose printed material is not as comprehensive as Obama’s).

Again, none of this is meant to deride Nature or any other outlet that has struggled to pry more information from the candidates. But it should be a reminder that, with only a month left to go until the election, reporters should be careful to ask questions that are the least likely to produce the same old answers.

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