Editor’s Journal: Questions That Blur Political Party Lines

Presidential election season is not the best time to be a policy wonk. Seminars at Harvard’s Kennedy School or colloquia at the National Academy of Sciences can feel like exercises in the theater of the absurd when voters seem eager to turn the choice of a vice president into an episode of “American Idol.” As experts in universities, think tanks, and professional organizations debate the fine points of position papers and action plans, ever hopeful that this will be the election when substantive policy debates take center stage, campaign strategists work feverishly to craft the bumper sticker that will somehow capture the whimsy of voters on November 4.

The urge to simplify is not the inclination of only the disengaged, the uninformed, or the cynical. During this season, we all tend to become Manicheans, seeing the world in black and white. The nation’s problems somehow align themselves so that the solutions are either Democratic or Republican. Even those of us who should know better can convince ourselves that the election results will determine everything about the course of policy.

There is no doubt that the election results will dramatically influence some very real and meaningful decisions. Sadly, Supreme Court appointments have come to hinge more on political orientation than constitutional insight, and any question related to abortion has become highly polarized. On numerous other questions, party affiliation will play a role, but we should try to be realistic about how strong that role will or should be.

One reason that those of us in the science, technology, and health policy community might take a simple view of the presidential choice is that neither candidate pays much attention to the details of STH policy questions during the campaign. A large number of leading individuals and institutions (including Issues and the National Academies) have supported the efforts of Science Debate 2008 to sponsor a public discussion of these questions between the candidates. No debate will take place, and many jaded policy veterans have pointed out from the beginning that the candidates have nothing to gain from debating complex topics that do not engage the public. Science Debate 2008 has sent a list of 14 questions to each of the candidates and asked for written responses. Barack Obama has submitted his answers, and John McCain has promised to send his. Answers will be posted at www.sciencedebate2008.com.

This will undoubtedly be useful to voters who care about these topics, but what will not be addressed is the reality that many of the most pressing STH policy concerns do not lend themselves to predictable ideological solutions. The candidates will discuss health care finance plans, but they are unlikely to have detailed suggestions for how to manage health care delivery more efficiently, how to ensure that all physicians practice up-to-date evidence-based medicine, and how to shift the emphasis in health care from disease treatment to health promotion.

The articles in this issue offer numerous other examples. Republicans and Democrats alike have discovered that the cold war is over and that the nature of threats to the nation’s security is markedly different from those of the past. Both parties have announced when in power that they are restructuring the military, and both are ready to restructure again. Although the Clinton and Bush administrations did add new dimensions to the military, neither could claim to have truly succeeded at restructuring because neither managed to eliminate investments in outdated technologies and systems. Torpedoing unnecessary programs is essential to free up the resources necessary to create a restructured military. Once that is done, both parties will finally have to face the difficulty of creating the military of the future, beginning with an R&D program designed to serve new purposes.

Likewise, both parties trumpet the need to develop renewable energy technologies, but when the country tried to do this in the late 1970s, the results were far from transformative. No obvious formula exists for stimulating technological innovation, making markets efficient, and encouraging consumers to make decisions with a long-term perspective. No amount of government spending will be enough to transform the energy system and markets. More federal research, tax incentives, market signals, and regulatory reform will all be part of the mix, but concocting the best recipe will be a challenge.

The political parties have fought over whether the United States should join the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the Law of the Sea Treaty, and other international environmental agreements. These debates would be more meaningful if we could be certain that the agreements actually advance their stated goals. The task for both parties is to find a way to establish an international system that gives these treaties some teeth. Otherwise, they are ripe for political gamesmanship, grandstanding, and cynicism. Indeed, in many areas of global affairs science and technology are paid lip service but given no real influence at the highest levels of government. The insights and expertise of scientists and engineers that is incorporated into policy advice is of little value if it is not effectively incorporated into policy formulation.

Most environmentalists have aligned themselves with the Democrats, who have demonstrated a greater willingness to regulate industrial pollution and to preserve natural resources. But advances in technology create new options to consider. Environmentalists have long advocated the use of integrated pest management (IPM) as an alternative to the excessive use of chemical pesticides in agriculture, and they have been wary of the risks that they perceive with the development of genetically engineered crops. But now researchers are finding that biotechnology can be a very effective tool in improving IPM. Choosing the best path forward will require reexamining past assumptions.

The Luddites have never gained a foothold in U.S. political culture, so all candidates happily declare themselves proponents of innovation. It’s less fattening than apple pie, and the economic rewards have been widely appreciated. The head start that the country gained by emerging relatively unscathed from World War II provided benefits for decades, and U.S. industry responded very effectively to the challenge from Japan in the 1990s. But the need for the United States to remain at the forefront of innovation is growing in importance as many other countries demonstrate their ability to produce high-technology goods at competitive prices and their desire to become leaders in technology innovation. We have learned that innovation is not simply a matter of new technology. It is a complex process that involves culture, finance, geography, regulation, and management. The diversity of innovation policies around the globe and the growing recognition that each country must find its own policy brew should be evidence enough that neither Republicans nor Democrats are likely to possess the holy grail.

Besides, it should be apparent by now that we are talking about politicians, not political theorists, and that rigorous adherence to philosophical principles is not a common practice within the Beltway. Republicans might sing the praises of market forces and rail against the dangers of industrial policy, but they cannot escape the reality that the market cannot be free of the influence of tax, trade, education, intellectual property, and numerous other policies. Democrats want to align themselves with the independence and creativity of scientific research, but they have yet to think through all the implications that will arise with the application of advances in genetics and biotechnology to the environment, human reproduction, equity, and health.

Indeed, the presidential candidates are no fools. They avoid detailed prescriptions for thorny STH policy problems because they know very well that when they actually have to confront these issues, they will not be able to implement a simple campaign pledge. So put the election in perspective, cast your vote, and be prepared for the much more engaging work of STH policymaking that will follow the election no matter who wins.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “Editor’s Journal: Questions That Blur Political Party Lines.” Issues in Science and Technology 25, no. 1 (Fall 2008).

Vol. XXV, No. 1, Fall 2008