Now that election season is in full swing and presidential candidates are actively seeking out the opinions and viewpoints of voters, we have the rare moment to get their attention about a fundamental issue: the need for science and democracy to aid the public good. This election is an opportunity for positive change—to strengthen the ability of science to inform decisionmaking at the highest levels of our government and ensure that the channels of democracy work better for everyone.
I know I’m not alone in getting incensed when I hear that our government ignores science or public input during the policymaking process. The government’s policy actions often have widespread ramifications on public health and the environment, and science is one of the best tools we have to evaluate whether a policy will protect or harm us. We are currently facing a serious threat in the form of the coronavirus outbreak, and we continue to face threats like climate change, food safety, and air pollution. And when science doesn’t inform government decisions, the people who face the worst health consequences are disproportionately the most vulnerable among us, such as children and people from marginalized communities. Therefore, it is more important than ever to have a government that listens to its scientists—and the public—and is willing to use the best available science to guide their decisionmaking processes. And that starts at the top.
Here are some key questions you can ask during the 2020 campaign season to determine what every presidential candidate would do to ensure that science remains at the forefront of government decisionmaking:
Because we need to make sure federal agencies protect their scientists from political interference and bring in qualified, dedicated experts…
Question 1: How do you plan to ensure that the federal government retains the strong scientific workforce needed to help protect our health and safety and the environment?
Because political interference in science exacerbates the existing inequities that underserved communities face and opens the door to even greater harm…
Question 2: How would you make sure science and democracy work for the communities who have historically been left out and left behind?
Because when scientific advice is censored and data is cut out of policymaking, the result is weaker public protections and less accountability to keep people safe. Corporate entities have a disinformation playbook that they are using to diminish the role of science to inform decisionmaking processes at federal agencies…
Question 3: How would you ensure decisionmaking about policies for our health, safety, and environment is informed by evidence and free from corruption or excessive influence from special interests?
Because we need to fix our voting system to represent the people and allow science to better serve the public. When voices are excluded from the process, it becomes easier to make policy decisions that are uninformed and unaccountable to the people…
Question 4: How will you reverse the erosion of voting rights and protect effective congressional representation to make sure that everyone can participate and have their voice heard?
How getting presidential candidates on the record creates change
The history of the US federal government is replete with examples of agency officials sidelining science during the decisionmaking process, a process that goes back to at least the Eisenhower administration. We need to ask our presidential candidates—who oversee those agencies—questions on whether they also value the role of science in policymaking in helping keep us all safe and healthy.
We have evidence to back up how effective this can be. During the 2008 election, scientists and science supporters rallied together to pressure the Obama and McCain campaigns to answer whether they believed that the protection of federal scientists from political interference was important to them. When Obama won the presidency, science advocacy groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists pressured the Obama administration to follow through with this campaign promise, which in turn has led to 28 federal agencies adopting scientific integrity policies. For the first time, protections against political interference in science were a prominent feature of the federal government.
In 2020, let’s carry on this drumbeat of activism. Let’s reach out to our presidential candidates over social media platforms and get them to state on the record what their views are on science protecting the public good. Let’s tell them with a loud and clear voice that we believe in science and democracy.
You can stand up and make a difference
By getting these issues into the public conversations during the election, you can inform the public and help elect officials that will stand up for the role of science in protecting the health and safety of all people. You can help inform current and future decisionmakers and voters about what’s at stake and, once they’re elected, together we can hold successful candidates accountable for statements they’ve made while campaigning.
If you use this information to ask a candidate a question, please let us know about it at act.ucsusa.org/stand-up-2020. Because together, we can make a difference during this election season and beyond.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.