Faculty share insights on science & the 2012 elections

Three professors explore the possible impact of politics on topics that included space exploration, stem cell research and climate change.


The upcoming election will affect a wide variety of scientific discoveries in the years ahead, though fields of study such as climate change, stem cell research and space exploration have largely gone unmentioned by political candidates on both sides of the aisle this fall.

That doesn’t mean voters shouldn’t pay attention. And as three Elon University faculty members shared in a Tuesday panel discussion, people must carefully weigh scientific claims put forward by politicians before formulating their own opinions on public policy issues.

The Oct. 2 program in McKinnon Hall, “Science that Matters: A Nonpartisan Look at the Science Relevant to the 2012 Presidential Election,” was attended by dozens of students, faculty and community members.

“When done properly, science follows neither conservative nor liberal principles,” said Associate Professor Dave Gammon, the event moderator. “Science cannot produce an ethical framework for how our society should act, but it does set constraints on what’s possible.

“A correct understanding of science allows us to make informed decisions to a create a prosperous and ethical society.”

Panelists included:

Tony Crider, associate professor of physics, who spoke on NASA funding and space exploration
Jen Uno, assistant professor of biology, who addressed questions related to scientific funding by the government and issues tied to stem cell research
Amanda Chunco, assistant professor of environmental studies, who offered perspectives on climate change and evaluating scientific claims

Crider noted that private companies are now leading the way in manned space exploration with entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and projects at companies such as Google spending large sums of money to do so. As a percentage of the overall federal budget, government funding to NASA is now only a fraction of where it once stood at the pinnacle of the Apollo program.

Nor is there a significant difference in the level of funding both parties say they want to earmark for NASA, he said.

“For both parties, the amount of funding they would actually put into NASA would likely be the same based on the track record we’ve seen,” Crider said. “How that money gets spent changes. They’re both honestly good visions, good ways to spend money. But they’re different. The Republican platform wants to bring back the glory days of competing against other countries.

“The vision that the current administration put forward is perhaps a little bit less patriotic and flag waving, and a little more practical, but isn’t seen as hopeful as the Republicans’ (ideas). They’re proposing to develop technology to land on an asteroid if we needed to.”

Uno discussed funding for scientific research that the U.S. government distributes through organizations like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. She said more quality scientific projects apply for government funding than there is money available.

“And rejection across the board … doesn’t feel good,” Uno said. “Because of that, there are a lot of unhappy, frustrated scientists right now. They’re trying to find ways to pursue the science they want to pursue.”

Uno also discussed current public policy debates over stem cells. She told her audience that much of the controversy over stem cells, which can be manipulated to form a wide variety of body tissues, involves embryonic cells harvested from a sperm-fertilized egg. However, adult stem cells also exist, and scientists continue to work on fully developing new organs for patients awaiting transplants or even cells that can assist with spinal cord injury recovery.

Chunco discussed the near-consensus among scientists on humans being a cause of climate change over the past century. As fossil fuels are burned and release greenhouse gases into the air, trees that recycle carbon are being removed, causing the atmosphere to trap sunlight and push up average worldwide temperatures.

“All of the published, peer reviewed scientific literature supports the idea that the climate is changing, and that humans are the driver,” Chunco said.

When listening to climate change skeptics, it’s important to examine the sources for public statements that downplay man-made effects on the environment, Chunco said. “Learning to evaluate strength of evidence is a really important part of critical thinking,” she said. “You have to think about the source.”