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Can Science Save Us? Mourdock Sees a Savior in Science

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Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock has been waiting for someone to ask him about science.

The Tea Party-backed candidate has a 10-point lead over U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in a Hower/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll heading into Tuesday's Republican Primary. The poll conducted Monday and Tuesday of last week surveyed 700 likely voters to find Mourdock leading Lugar 48 to 38 percent with a 3.7 percent margin for error.

Mourdock, 60, faces a political icon on Tuesday whose longevity in office—spanning 40 years—is being called a liability in the current political climate.

If he makes it to November, Mourdock’s unusual background may be his biggest asset. At a time when Congress is tasked with developing energy policy for a changing climate, Mourdock is a scientist.

Mourdock, who holds a Master's degree in geology from Ball State University, worked in the energy sector for more than 30 years. If elected he would join a small group of scientists in the 112th Congress—a group that contained around 30 scientists among the 535 senators and representatives in the 110th Congress.

“Those of us who are trained in the sciences look at problems differently,” says Mourdock. “We are more analytical and less ready to accept what appears to be the obvious answer.”

But is he prepared to balance the views of his conservative constituents with his own training in science when faced with issues of climate change, reproductive health and evolutionary science?

Incumbent Sen. Lugar, 80, is the longest serving U.S. Senator in Indiana’s history. Before being elected to the Senate in 1976, Lugar served on the Indianapolis Board of School Commissioners from 1964 to 1967. He was elected mayor of Indianapolis in 1967 and served two terms beginning in 1968.

Lugar studied politics, philosophy and economics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University from which he holds Bachelor and Master’s degrees. During his Senate tenure, he has been influential in the dismantling of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. He is perhaps best known in this regard for co-authoring the Nunn-Lugar Global Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

Science in the Hoosier General Assembly

During the 2012 legislative session of the Indiana General Assembly, science came into the spotlight with the introduction of a bill that would have allowed Indiana schools to teach creationism alongside evolution in science classrooms.

The bill narrowly passed the Senate but was defeated in the House.

State Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, voted against the bill.

“This is an issue that conservative groups have latched onto,” says Broden. “And it has some clout. Conservative Christian theology plays a very large role in who wins Republican primaries right now.”

Broden says that he’s never had a single constituent approach him about teaching alternative theories to evolution. No letters, phone calls or grocery market conversations.

But his conservative colleagues in the Senate have.

“A certain segment of [the Republican] base does view this as an important issue,” says Broden. “I don’t think they view the separation of church and state in the way that I might view it. I think that they might like to push the envelope, and it doesn’t bother them that there may be challenges.”

He says that scientists and people who respect the profession should be concerned.

“I sense that there’s a war on science. There seems to be a lack of respect for science and it’s growing,” says Broden. “I think scientists are under siege at the national level, and I think it’s growing at the state level.”

On the National Stage, Science in the Spotlight

Legislators at the national level are expected to weigh the evidence for and against complex science-related topics often without the rigorous training required to understand the scientific process.

For this reason Jamie Vernon, a Science and Technology Policy Fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., is hesitant to proclaim a war on science underway.

“A lot of the time, policymakers don’t understand the complexity of science,” says Vernon. “They think that if you throw money at a scientific problem, you’re going to solve it.”

Through his fellowship, Vernon uses his science background to make policy recommendations that address energy challenges. He says it may be necessary to focus on the big picture and make sense of a particular science problem in a way that fits the agenda of a policymaker. This often includes highlighting the economic benefit of a particular science policy.

“People look at science differently. Facts are not what we used to think they were. They are not completely objective,” says Vernon. “To say that there’s a war on science implies that people are taking facts, ignoring those facts and purposefully, or disingenuously, making policy decisions in the face of science.”

Vernon concedes that while it appears that the Republican Party is sometimes misaligned with information that comes from the scientific community, he does not believe that it is a purposeful endeavor.

“I think they have a way of reasoning away what scientists say,” says Vernon. He says it is more likely that the credibility of science is under attack.

Mourdock agrees.

Restoring Faith in Science Through Active Legislative Participation

Mourdock says that his background in science will allow him to take an analytical approach to politics. He scoffs at the notion that conservatives are waging a war on science.

“I think that’s silly. Galileo was attacked. Darwin was attacked. I don’t know that this is a political attack so much as a societal attack,” says Mourdock. “If it’s political, it’s because so much in our lives, and I’m not just talking science here anymore, seems to require involvement of government.”

Mourdock says that topics like teaching creationism in schools should be debated at the local level, not the national level.

“Where I think there should be a debate on science, to really cut to the heart of it, is how we have government better support new technologies that only science can provide,” says Mourdock. “I became a geologist because the summer I graduated from high school, I saw people walking on the moon.”

That was 1969. Mourdock says the national feeling about science was different then.

“It was all about science. You couldn’t escape how the nation was involved in science,” says Mourdock. “That inspired a whole generation of people like myself.”

Mourdock says the national debate should be that if the government is going to be involved in science, how can it be involved in a way that “inspires people to love science, to study science, not knowing where it will take them, but just having that educational background?”

Mourdock does not expect a re-focusing of the national science debate to happen overnight.

“It takes real leadership from those of us who love science and understand its importance to society,” says Mourdock. “The reason it was happening [in the 1950’s and 1960’s] was because of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the United States had this intense rivalry that spurred a space race.”

Fear that the Soviet Union could launch a nuclear attack as easily as it launched a space shuttle created a generation of science-savvy young adults. But that fervor soon faded.

“A renewal of that spirit is going to take some real sense of urgency that science can save us,” says Mourdock. “We have to look at science as what’s going to save our economy. How can we develop new technologies to make us better equipped to go forward in a very, very competitive world?”

Conservative Voice, Constituent Concerns

Mourdock self-identifies as a Christian, but he does not take a Creationist view on the origin of the Universe. He says it is important that political parties not be divided into a party for science and a party against science.

“I tell my Christian friends: when you look at the rock record, the fossil record, of course evolution occurred. It continues to occur,” says Mourdock. “It is important that we understand that others can disagree. I’m more concerned, frankly, when I see science misused by politicians.”

Specifically, Mourdock says the debate is not over on global climate change. He says that in science the debate never ends.

“That is the most anti-scientific stance that you can take,” says Mourdock. “It’s never over. One question leads to another, leads to another, leads to another.”

Mourdock says there will be a consensus of a majority on climate change, but his preference is that it be based on science that is questioned. (Read positions by AGU , GSA and AAAS.)

“Politicians are always going to do a horrible job of assessing science when there is no clear, obvious outcome,” says Mourdock, “because science is being used to drive a political outcome.”

The bottom line is funding, he says.

“One group will want one outcome because it may mean funding in this area,” says Mourdock, “and another group will want another outcome because it means there won’t be funding in that area. It’s not about what the science says. It’s about how the science is being used.”

But can we keep science from becoming politicized? Vernon says that the scientific process is one that we’ve trusted for hundreds of years and it’s paid off—aligning science with a political group may cause that trust to be eroded.

Mourdock is a proponent of increasing the presence of science in Congress.

“We need more people with a science background in physical sciences—physics, biology, geology, chemistry—in this public life,” says Mourdock.

He would like to become one of those people.

The Republican primary winner will face U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Granger, in the November election.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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