I Watched America's Pro-Science Party Abandon Research at the Democratic Debate

Yes, we need new technology to survive, but shouldn't we want technology that lets us thrive?

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It’s 11 p.m. and I’m outside the Duggal Greenhouse, the Democratic Party debate venue in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, looking for people willing to talk to me about science. And I’m finding no one. It’s been only ten minutes since Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton stepped off stage, but talking points seem to have already calcified.

The only scientific concepts discussed during the debate were climate change and its infant son, clean energy. Despite the fact that only two days have passed since the announcement of one of the biggest space exploration projects in human history — and certainly the biggest privately funded initiative ever — no one wants to talk about the portion of the federal budget that makes its way, through a variety of channels, to laboratories, skunkworks, and testing sites. No one seems particularly concerned about probing the frontiers of human knowledge and achievement.

“As far as I know the only presidential candidate who has supported increased funding for NASA is Ted Cruz,” Brian Coughlin, a Bernie supporter, tells me. “I couldn’t be farther from supporting him so apparently it’s pretty far down on my list of concerns.”

Coughlin and his two nodding buddies evince an interest in science, but they have limited knowledge of issues around research funding and NASA to say nothing of the government’s role in encryption issues. Global warming is, for them, the sole scientific issue of paramount concern. “I think that’s where we need to be putting our effort,” says Coughlin, implying unintentionally that there is a zero-sum game afoot. His sentiments echo those of many other attendees who seem to believe that America has a set amount of science it can do and needs to use that science to make the world not heat up and the cities not flood. Triage is necessary on some level, sure, but the crowd feels like it’s negotiating with the apocalypse and caving.

No one I meet is against scientific and technological progress per se, they’re just fine leaving conversations about the resources needed to pursue it to a later date. Elle Merritt tells me that she was eager to hear from the candidates — she hasn’t decided who to vote for — on the subject of climate change. The rest of it could, in her opinion, wait. Martie Finkelstein, a social worker who works with people in Red Hook, says that she considers data privacy important, but really wanted to hear Bernie and Hillary talk about how they they plan to “take care of us as people.”

“Space exploration and data privacy are important issues, as well as other emerging technology policies,” says Dal LaMagna, CEO of the countertop company IceStone, which operates out of the Navy Yard. “However, these issues pale in comparison to climate warming which is an existential threat to our planet. Climate warming should be a major subject to all candidate discussions and all other technology issues should be relegated to policy statements.”

In a sense, La Magna was underlining the importance of climate change as an issue by being dismissive of other scientific issues. This is both a statement of priorities and a rhetorical device — one employed to good effect by the candidates. Sanders emphasized during the debate that Earthlings are on “a suicide course” toward a “global environmental crisis of unprecedented urgency.” And he might not be wrong.

But science isn’t a tool with which we can fix stuff — even if it sometimes plays that role. In the past, presidents — notably JFK — have articulated their vision for our national pre-eminence in terms of scientific and technological advancement. Not so much anymore. It seems that the billionaires and tech giants are taking over on that front. Even Vice President Biden’s “cancer moonshot” initiative, which aims to do no less than cure cancer, has $1 billion in funding. That’s less than the government’s annual allotment for rice subsidies. NASA’s budget, which President Obama fought for, is $19.3 billion. That’s 0.486 percent of the $4-trillion federal budget.

Combating climate change by embracing clean energy is a smart policy priority. And perhaps the Democratic base should be applauded for not being as irresponsible as the Republicans on that issue. But is it enough for America to fund solely reactionary science? Is it worrisome that the party of the people most likely to believe in scientific evidence doesn’t view research as a fundamental national good? It is to me and I’m getting frustrated trying to talk to people about possibilities rather that priorities.

These are practical people. They want to do what needs to be done. Conversations about what could be done can come later — probably during someone’s second term.

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