This post appeared originally at my Huffington Post column on February 19, 2015.
The 2016 presidential campaign is already upon us and the debate is heating up over an unexpected issue — the theory of evolution. Of course, in an ideal world, evolution would never really become a campaign issue. But the anti-science wing of the Republican Party continues to voice skepticism. Apologists for this wing would dearly like to distract the media and the voting public from what is, frankly, a national if not a global embarrassment.
In truth, the President of the United States needs to be scientifically literate. For the federal government has an important role to play and it is a role that will only grow larger and more complex in the next president’s term. It has been a century since the theory of evolution has become settled, incontrovertible science. To doubt evolution at this late date is to reveal oneself to be willfully, invincibly ignorant of basic scientific principles. And there is no room in the Oval Office — none — for the scientifically illiterate.
Just consider some of the issues the federal government has recently addressed and is likely to address in the next few years. Let’s begin with some recent history — the Human Genome Project. In 1990, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and some international groups and organizations commenced work on mapping the human genome — the intricately-wrought genetic pattern that we all inherit from our ancestors and that makes human life possible. In 2003, the Project was brought to successful completion.
And now look at some of the benefits: “There are now more than 2,000 genetic tests [as of October, 2010] for human conditions.” Again, as of 2010, “at least 350 biotechnology-based products resulting from the Human Genome Project are currently in clinical trials.” Thanks to prudent management of the Project, its federal financing has proven to be a net plus to the economy: “In just a single year, 2010, genomics-enabled industries generated more than $3.7 billion in federal taxes, and $2.3 billion in state and local taxes.” The Human Genome Project, in other words, has proven its worth not only in the way it has enhanced our quality of life, but in its economic returns. It has more than paid for itself and made the world a better place. Now, tell me, would you have preferred a scientific illiterate in the White House?
In the years to come, questions of human genetics are likely to raise compelling public policy concerns. We stand on the cusp of great advances in the field of prenatal genetic therapy. Genetic therapy is showing great promise in the treatment of hemophilia. It is showing similar promise in the treatment of another blood disorder, thalassaemia. Many other advances can be expected.
With advances in genetic therapy come even more complicated questions. Early in February, 2015, the British House of Commons permitted the creation of human embryos from three genetic parents. The purpose of the vote was to allow British hospitals to employ the latest scientific insights in the treatment of mitochondrial disease. Defective mitochondria is replaced by material provided by a third-party donor. The result is a healthy infant with normal life expectancy. When governments come to make judgments on momentous questions like these, don’t we deserve scientifically literate decision-makers?
But biology and genetics represent just one small aspect of what will likely be a large range of scientific issues to confront the next president. Let’s talk next about quantum computing. In a sense, quantum computing stands where research on the human genome stood just before 1990, when the mapping project was about to be launched. It is a field, in other words, where much basic research still needs to be performed.
Quantum computing relies on phenomena that occur on the quantum scale, such as superposition. Popularized by Schrodinger’s cat, which might be both alive and dead at the same time, superposition would be exploited by new quantum computers to work on multiple computations simultaneously, exponentially increasing the number of operations a single computer might perform.
Progress in the development of quantum computers has been slow. Still, there is evidence that the pace is now picking up substantially. “The prospect for useful and profitable quantum computers are good enough to have drawn Google into the game, along with IBM and Microsoft, among others. Several academic groups are also pushing the technology in practical directions. At the Delft University in the Netherlands, for example, the government-backed QuTech Center is bringing researchers together with the Dutch high-tech industry.”
Again, it is obvious: in a time of game-changing scientific breakthroughs, we do not want a scientific illiterate in the White House. We don’t necessarily need a computer scientist. But we need someone who respects what support for research can accomplish.
And what about climate change? The anti-science wing of the Republican Party continues to shout its opposition. This is not the place to review the science behind climate change. Instead, let’s talk a language that the Republican right-wing understands — money. According to a February, 2015, news story: “Citigroup has set aside one hundred billion dollars to fund environmental projects over the next decade.” The announcement added: “The investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects is meant to help reduce the effects of climate change.”
Now, Citigroup is not some granola-eating hippie. It’s a multinational investment bank strongly motivated by profit. And we are talking about 100 billion dollars — that’s billion, with a “B.” The management of Citigroup seems to take the science of climate change as so well-established it is willing to invest many billions of dollars. This is not the time, in other words, to elect a science-denying right-winger to the Presidency.
And we should be clear: The Republican field has a number of anti-science candidates. It is easy to pick on Scott Walker, the college-dropout Governor of Wisconsin who is busy degrading the capabilities of that State’s once world-class university system. But we must include in the mix Governor Mike Huckabee, Senator Ted Cruz, and Dr. Benjamin Carson who should know better than to hang out with the anti-evolution crowd.
Their defenders will say that they have to take the positions they do, that their base demands. And that is the problem. It is time for the Republican Party to confront the pathologies of its base. And a great place to begin is on the subject of scientific illiteracy.