Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders went toe-to-toe on climate change during Thursday night’s Democratic Debate in Brooklyn, but saving the environment didn’t have much competition. Climate change emerged as the scientific touchstone of the night because it was essentially the only STEM topic discussed. While Clinton and Sanders spoke passionately on combating environmental degradation with clean energy initiatives, the rest of the night was reserved for more sociopolitical conflicts like gun control, foreign policy, and investment in education.
These are important topics to be sure, but after eight debates consisting of essentially the same questions, tonight’s debate number nine could have offered a fresh perspective on the scientific and technological issues affecting Americans. Moderators Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash put on their journalist hats and asked hard questions tonight, but these are three of the big topics they missed:
Personal Data and Encryption
The security of our personal data is a pressing, murky issue that’s essentially been skipped over through much of the election season. Just this week three major events relating to encryption and privacy emerged: On Wednesday, a Congressional committee announced that Apple and the FBI will both testify before Congress and discuss their opposing opinions on end-to-end encryption. On Thursday, news broke that Microsoft is suing the Department of Justice; the technology company claims the DOJ violates the Fourth Amendment when it prevents Microsoft from telling its customers that the federal agency looks at their emails. Meanwhile, the leaked Burr-Feinstein encryption bill — which would allow U.S. law enforcement agencies to decipher encrypted messages from services like WhatsApp and iMessage — is being described as a “ludicrous, dangerous, technically illiterate” proposal.
Clinton and Sanders are both on the record for supporting net neutrality, but when it comes to privacy neither of them have a decisive opinion. In May, Clinton called the encryption debate between Apple and the FBI as the “worst dilemma ever” while in February Sanders said that he was on both Apple’s and the FBI’s side. Both candidates don’t seem to like the United States wielding I encrypt what I want power, but they also see the need for national security reasons. If Sanders or Clinton become president, they’ll need a critical opinion on this and we should learn it before one of them is in the Oval Office.
While President Obama proposed $18.5 billion towards NASA funding in February, the 2016 Democratic candidates have been fairly quiet about how they feel about space — it’s actually Ted Cruz who has said he wants to increase support to NASA. Clinton, who in the 2008 election said she was “committed to a space exploration program that involves robust human spaceflight,” has yet to comment about NASA on the campaign trail this time around. Sanders, meanwhile, has voted to decrease NASA’s budget in the past. This ho-hum attitude led the Brookings Institute to propose that: “A Republican in the White House may lead to a push for more robust support, focusing less on earth science and more on long-term, outward-facing research. Democrats, on the other hand, might remain committed to the status quo.”
It’s a rare conversation where Republicans are more eager to talk about a scientific field than Democrats. It could be argued that Clinton and Sanders understand the key to winning votes right now is to focus on home-spun issues, but it’s still a bit surprising to realize that one of the biggest space exploration announcements in the past decade was made this week in the same city where the debate took place, yet there were no comments on space exploration from either of the candidates.
It’s still unclear where Sanders and Clinton stand when it comes to providing federal funding and sanctity to biomedical research. While Obama removed a ban on stem cell research in 2009, the issues is still far from removed in Washington: For example, a congressional committee led by Marsha Blackburn is on a “witch hunt” for the names of researchers who study fetal tissue to develop treatments for disease.
Clinton does have a track record of supporting biomedical research, even if she’s not bringing it up on the campaign trail now. While Sanders has supported stem cell research (including embryonic stem cell research) in the Senate, he’s also voted against therapeutic cloning, which has made scientists in the field skeptical of his support for the scientific and medical advancement, according to U.S. News & World Report. With scientific possibilities like cloning becoming a closer reality every day, it’d be remiss for the 2016 presidential candidates to stay quiet on the subject of biomedical advancements.
The Democrats are tentatively set for another debate in May. While it may be a long shot for some of the more nuanced STEM issues, we hope that these three get at least a passing mention in the next go-round, as they’ll certainly be hot-button topics for our next Commander-in-Chief.