Republican Party Platform Has a Lot to Say About Science

Tell us what you think. The 2012 Republican Party Platform takes some new approaches to science and technology policy, compared to the GOP’s 2008 plank.

Addressing climate change and reducing demand for fossil fuels are out, and more neuroscience research and space science missions are in. Those shifts from 2008 are evident in the 2012 Republican Party Platform approved yesterday at the GOP’s national convention in Tampa, Florida.

Every 4 years, each major U.S. party adopts policy positions designed to highlight key issues of the day and draw distinctions with its political opponents. The laundry lists—this year’s Republican version runs about 50 pages—are also a chance for different factions within a party to publicize issues that might not be getting much attention from voters—or even from their own standard-bearer.

The Republican platform "is about the great dreams and opportunities that have always been America and must remain the essence of America for generations to come," according to the preamble. Six chapters lay out the party's position on hot-button issues, from gay marriage and abortion to taxes and health care. But the platform also touches on wonkier topics, such as the GOP's take on restructuring the U.S. Postal Service and the Federal Open Market Committee.

Not surprisingly, science and technology policy doesn't get its own chapter. But references to it are sprinkled throughout sections on education, natural resources, and government reform. Among the highlights:

Climate change does a disappearing act. While the 2008 platform spent nearly two pages on "addressing climate change responsibly" and "reducing demand for fossil fuels" in order to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, the topics are barely mentioned in the current version. Also gone is the 2008 platform's proposal for a government-sponsored "Climate Prize," which would award millions of dollars to “scientists who solve the challenges of climate change.”

Instead, the 2012 version emphasizes "taking advantage of all our American God-given resources" and the need to encourage greater domestic oil, gas, and coal development. The party opposes "any and all cap and trade legislation" that would create a system of tradable pollution permits designed to reduce industrial emissions of warming gases such as carbon dioxide. And it calls on Congress "to take quick action to prohibit the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] from moving forward with new greenhouse gas regulations that will harm the nation's economy and threaten millions of jobs over the next quarter century." The platform also criticizes the President Barack Obama's Administration for issuing a National Security Strategy that "elevates 'climate change' to the level of a 'severe threat' equivalent to foreign aggression. The word 'climate,' in fact, appears in the current President's strategy more often than Al Qaeda, nuclear proliferation, radical Islam, or weapons of mass destruction."

In large part, such language reflects shifts within the party and the national political landscape since 2008. Its presidential candidate then was Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who once supported aggressive government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Mitt Romney, this year’s nominee, has shared some of McCain’s positions in the past, but has backed away from publicly calling for government action to reduce emissions.

Alternative energy gets a qualified vote of confidence. The 2008 platform insisted that "alternate power sources must enter the mainstream," and called for tax and other policies to speed the development of non-fossil fuels and electricity sources. The 2012 version says Republicans "encourage the cost-effective development of renewable energy, but the taxpayers should not serve as venture capitalists for risky endeavors. It is important to create a pathway toward a market-based approach for renewable energy sources and to aggressively develop alternative sources for electricity generation such as wind, hydro, solar, biomass, geothermal, and tidal energy."

The platform criticizes Obama for using "taxpayer dollars to pick winners and losers in the energy sector while publicly threatening to bankrupt anyone who builds a new coal-fired plant." It declares that Obama "has stopped the Keystone XL Pipeline" and "has wasted billions of taxpayers’ dollars by subsidizing favored companies like Solyndra, which generated bankruptcies rather than kilowatts." In contrast, the platform says, a Romney Administration "will not pick winners and losers in the energy marketplace. Instead, we will let the free market and the public’s preferences determine the industry outcomes. In assessing the various sources of potential energy, Republicans advocate an all-of-the-above diversified approach, taking advantage of all our American God-given resources. That is the best way to advance North American energy independence."

"Strategic immigration" of scientists and engineers gets a plug. The 2012 platform gives much more attention than the 2008 platform to the fate of immigrants who earn advanced degrees in science and engineering fields from U.S. universities. It says they "should be encouraged to remain here," with the government lending a hand by issuing "more work visas." But that stance falls short of Romney's stated position that he would “staple a green card” to their diplomas, a policy that would give them permanent residency.

The platform also says that, "as in past generations, we should encourage the world’s innovators and inventors to create our common future and their permanent homes here in the United States."

A warning against politicized science. In a two-paragraph section on "Our Republican Party's Commitment to Conservation," the 2012 platform notes that environmental policy "must balance economic development and private property rights in the short run with conservation goals over the long run." One sentence later, it adds: "Moreover, the advance of science and technology advances environmentalism as well. Science allows us to weigh the costs and benefits of a policy so that we can prudently deal with our resources. This is especially important when the causes and long-range effects of a phenomenon are uncertain. We must restore scientific integrity to our public research institutions and remove political incentives from publicly funded research."

Exactly what the platform committee meant by "phenomenon" and "political incentives" is not explained, and members of the committee’s staff could not be reached for comment as ScienceInsider went to press.

In a section entitled, "Reining in the EPA," the platform also links "liberty" to scientific progress. "Liberty alone fosters scientific inquiry, technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and information exchange," it says. "Liberty must remain the core energy behind America’s environmental improvement."

Continued support for biomedical research, and opposition to human embryonic stem cell studies. As in the 2008 platform, the party backs federal spending on biomedical research, but also gives a special shoutout to the value of neuroscience. "We … support federal investment in basic and applied biomedical research," it says, "especially the neuroscience research that may hold great potential for dealing with diseases and disorders such as Autism, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's."

The 2012 platform also repeats previous calls for expanding federal funding "for the stem-cell research that now offers the greatest hope for many afflictions—with adult stem cells, umbilical cord blood, and cells reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells—without the destruction of embryonic human life." But the party opposes "the killing of embryos for their stem cells. We oppose federal funding of embryonic stem cell research." It also urges "a ban on human cloning" and "a ban on the use of body parts from aborted fetuses for research."

A retreat from human space flight? While the 2008 platform said Republicans "share the vision of returning Americans to the moon as a step toward a mission to Mars," the 2012 edition is less specific. It lauds NASA's "spectacular results" over the past few decades, and then warns that "today, America's leadership in space is challenged by countries eager to emulate—and surpass—NASA's accomplishments. To preserve our national security interests and foster innovation and competitiveness, we must sustain our preeminence in space, launching more science missions, guaranteeing unfettered access, and maintaining a source of high-value American jobs." The platform is silent on the Obama Administration’s decision to cancel plans to return astronauts to the moon, and cut funds from robotic missions to Mars.

Unhappiness with stockpile stewardship and missile defense. The platform airs complaints with how the Obama Administration has handled efforts to maintain the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and its moves to cut spending on missile defense—and promises Republicans would do better. "We recognize that the gravest terror threat we face—a nuclear attack made possible by nuclear proliferation—requires a comprehensive strategy for reducing the world’s nuclear stockpiles and preventing the spread of those armaments," it says. "But the U.S. can lead that effort only if it maintains an effective strategic arsenal at a level sufficient to fulfill its deterrent purposes, a notable failure of the current Administration. The United States is the only nuclear power not modernizing its nuclear stockpile."

On missile defense, the platform charges that "it took the current Administration just one year to renege on the President's commitment to modernize the neglected infrastructure of the nuclear weapons complex—a commitment made in exchange for approval of the New START treaty. In tandem with this, the current Administration has systematically undermined America’s missile defense, abandoning the missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, reducing the number of planned interceptors in Alaska, and cutting the budget for missile defense. … With unstable regimes in Iran and North Korea determined to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the United States, with the possibility that a terrorist group could gain control of a nuclear weapon, it is folly to abandon a missile shield for the country."

Kudos for African health program. Echoing the 2008 platform’s pledge to assist African nations with development, the 2012 platform singles out the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) for praise. "PEPFAR, President George W. Bush’s Plan for AIDS Relief, is one of the most successful global health programs in history," it states. "It has saved literally millions of lives. Along with the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, another initiative of President Bush, it represents America’s humanitarian commitment to the peoples of Africa, though these are only one aspect of our assistance to the nations of that continent."

Make the R&D tax credit permanent. Repeating a long-held—and often bipartisan—talking point, the platform calls for helping companies develop innovative technologies by creating a “permanent research and development tax credit." Currently, Congress typically extends federal R&D credit, which allows companies to deduct certain research expenses from their tax bill, for just one or a few years at a time, partly to avoid having to find a way to pay for a permanent extension. Those favoring a permanent credit, a long list that includes Obama as well as business and academic leaders, say such policy lurches create uncertainty for companies doing long-term planning, making them less likely to invest in risky projects if they think they can't defray expenses.

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