Learn the Science Behind Getting Politicians to Talk About Research, Innovation

Campaign for Cures

The Campaign for Cures Election 2016 blog features news, analysis, commentary and data about the presidential candidates and congressional races in key states on issues relevant to medical progress. Janice Lloyd, former USA Today senior editor and health reporter, manages The Campaign for Cures blog. You can reach Janice at campaignforcures@gmail.com.   Follow Campaign for Cures, a national voter education initiative, on Twitter and Facebook and visit www.campaignforcures.org

Learn the Science Behind Getting Politicians to Talk About Research, Innovation

Janice Lloyd

During the presidential debates, you might have expected to hear intelligent questions about how candidates plan to use science, research and innovation in policies that will shape the future of our nation’s health.

Remember: About half of all adults in the U.S. —117 million people—have one or more chronic health conditions. One of four adults has two or more chronic health conditions. Seven of the top 10 causes of death are chronic diseases. Two of these chronic diseases—heart disease and cancer—together account for nearly 48% of all deaths.

So why was it that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were drilled on health care policy but were never asked if they planned to make finding new treatments for mental and physical diseases a higher national priority?

Two panels of researchers, research advocates and journalists talked about how to refocus conversations in the future to address issues like devastating illnesses and man-made environmental problems.

Their commentary, hosted by The Young Turks, can be seen here and here on YouTube.

This point is raised in the intro: “Sex scandals, fantasy football, and airports… when are Trump and Hillary going to begin talking about issues that matter? While our politicians talk about a wide range of issues, they rarely, if ever, discuss the ones most centrally responsible for our overall quality of life: science and technology.” 

Here are five takeaways from the videos about how to put more emphasis on science and technology in order to improve quality of life:

-- These lengthy dialogues about science and evidence-based thinking provide an important alternative to the cable news networks’ coverage, or lack of coverage, given to science and the progress it brings about. Cable news often thrives on short sound bites.

-- These experts are trained to ask the questions that dig deep. They find answers to complex issues, so they might give you ideas about what kinds of answers to seek, allowing you to form assessments of the presidential candidates and the candidates running for Senate and House and also be able to distinguish between good and bad science. Learning today isn’t about “memorizing things anymore,’’  said Andy Revkin, science writer and blogger for The New York Times. “Now you don’t have to do that, but you have to assess things. That’s a different skillset that has to be emerging.” And different kinds of questions need to emerge.

For example, “Do you think there should be more money invested in medical research?” “Would you support a public health emergency fund?” “What do you think of President Obama’s Cancer Moonshot?”

--Several of the panelists envision a remake of a  world where scientists have a vital role in public policy. Rush Holt, a physicist, served eight terms in Congress (1999-2015). Now chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he recalled when a few Capitol Hill offices were contaminated by anthrax when he was a Congressman. He said his colleagues turned to him, inquiring “You’re a scientist, tell me about anthrax.”

“I scratched my head and said where in the physics curriculum did I miss that part (about anthrax spores)?

While telling this story, he laughed and added:

“But they were saying something really important. They were saying you’re a scientist. You must know facts and figures. That’s what science is. In their mind, science is technology and a lot of Latin and Greek words.

They were saying I can’t deal with those issues.

“What we have to do is empower people, some of whom will be elected to Congress, to recognize that they, too, can deal with evidence. They, too, can think like a scientist. They can build a reverence for evidence and how it’s collected and how it’s curated and how it’s analyzed and how it’s communicated.”

Another strategy was offered by Harold Varmus, an American recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and former director of the National Cancer Institute.

“We [are] never going to have 100 physicists in Congress,’’ he said. “But every Congressman should have a scientist in their office. We have a lot of people who are well-trained scientists, who want to be academic scientists someday. Most of them won’t because we’re in a situation where the vote to support academic science has diminished.

“We need to be sure our embassies have scientific attaches. That our congressional offices, that the Executive branch is well-populated with people who can bring evidence to people who have the power.”

-- Get involved, they said, don't opt out. They urged everyone to become an advocate for evidence-based research. Many examples of citizen-based movements from breast cancer to HIV were cited, including Flint, Mich., mother LeeAnne Walters. She sent water from her home to a lab to be tested for lead and attended city council meetings when government officials were assuring the city they had nothing to worry about.

-- Invest more money in research. Research!America’s CEO Mary Woolley praised the wealth of decades of research that has improved the quality of life, but added this warning:  “To continue to make that kind of progress we have to invest in the young generation of people who want to be scientists, want to get a scientific education and then go to work tackling these problems.

“But that isn’t’ what’s happening now. We’ve made it extremely difficult and too competitive considering the challenges out there. Part of the solution of getting more young people into science is the rest of us demanding it.”


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Presidential Candidates Should Participate in Debate on Science

Source: A Research!America and ScienceDebate.org poll of U.S. adults conducted in partnership with Zogby Analytics in September 2015.