Exclusive: Interview with Senator John Edwards on Science-Related Topics

I had a great pleasure recently to be able to interview Senator – and now Democratic Presidential candidate – John Edwards for my blog. The interview was conducted by e-mail last week.
As I am at work and unable to moderate comments, the comment section is closed on this post, but will be open on the previous post (here) where I hope you will remain civil and stay on topic. You are also welcome to comment on this interview at several other places (e.g,. DailyKos, MyDD, TPMCafe, Science And Politics, Liberal Coalition, the Edwards campaign blog as well as, hopefully, your own blogs).
I cannot answer any additional questions for Senator Edwards, of course, but there are likely to be other opportunities in the future where your questions can be answered so feel free to post them in the comments thread on the other post and I’ll make sure he gets them. The interview is under the fold:

Welcome to my blog, Senator. It is great privilege for me to be able to ask you a few questions on topics of interest to the scientific community in particular and the ‘reality-based’ community in general.
1. Let’s start with the fun part of the interview – your personal thoughts on science: past, present and future. Were you a science geek as a kid, where do you get your science information today and how do you see the world transformed by science in the future?
First, let me say I was not a science geek growing up. Nothing against science geeks. But that wasn’t me.
However, I do believe that science is the key to innovation in the American economy, the key to improving our standard of living. We see the impact of science everyday–from biotechnology to smart bombs, from satellite Global Positioning Systems to the Internet.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy will play a central role when I’m president. We need to encourage science, and do it honestly and openly. It’s unfortunate the Bush administration hasn’t shared that view. The censorship and suppression of science on climate change, on air pollution, on stem cell research–all to advance a political agenda–is wrong. Policy should be science driven; science shouldn’t be politics driven.
For example, I support reductions of carbon emissions by 20 percent by the year 2020, and reduce it by at least 80 percent by the year 2050–because that’s what the science tells us we need to do. If we don’t listen to the science–if we continue to ignore it, as this administration has done–the results will be catastrophic.
2. How do you propose to tackle the complex issue of climate change and, if elected in 2008, what can you do to persuade the Congress, the private sector and the American people, as well as all the other nations in the World, to accept your plan although it will require substantial changes in the way we think: choosing quality of life over raw wealth! Is America ready for this?
I believe America has to lead the way in dealing with the crisis of climate change and global warming. We are four percent of the world’s population, but we emit as much as 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. We have no credibility with the rest of the world on this issue right now. We’re the worst polluter on the planet. America needs to lead by example.
We need to make certain that America understands this crisis–that if we have a 4 to 8 degree rise in our temperature then there will be migration of hundreds of millions of people. There won’t be enough food or enough water and millions of people will be flooded out of their homes. America must understand it and the president of the United States must understand it.
Here’s what’s really important to understand: we can actually turn the crisis of global warming into an opportunity. We can create a new, clean energy economy that creates 1 million new jobs, ends our dependence on foreign oil, and brings rural communities back to life. And ultimately, we can become a leader for the rest of the world.
Our first priority is capping and reducing greenhouse gas pollution. We must do what the consensus of the scientific community says is necessary to stop the Earth from getting more than 2 degrees warmer.
What the Bush administration has done is constantly rewrite what the science says and substitute the talking points of the oil industry. They literally hire lobbyists into the White House to substitute special interests for science. That’s got to stop.
What the scientific community says today is – taking into account what’s going on in the developing world — the U.S. needs to reduce our global greenhouse emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050. As president, I will enact a national cap on carbon emissions that meets that goal.
In terms of how we get there, we need to invest in renewable energies like wind, solar, and biofuels. And we have to raise the fuel-efficiency standards significantly in this country. I believe the number is 40 miles per gallon by 2016. That would single-handedly reduce oil demand by 4 million barrels per day.
We must lead the world to a new climate treaty that commits other countries–including developing nations–to reduce their pollution. I will insist that developing countries join us in this effort, by offering to share new clean energy technology and, if necessary, using trade agreements to require binding greenhouse reductions.
I will create a New Energy Economy Fund by auctioning off greenhouse pollution permits and repealing subsidies for big oil companies. The fund will support U.S. research and development in energy technology, help entrepreneurs start new businesses, invest in new carbon-capture and efficient automobile technology and help Americans conserve energy. Finally, we must reduce the demand for more electricity through efficiency for the next decade, instead of producing more electricity.
Our generation must be the one that says, “We must halt global warming.” If we don’t act now, it will be too late. Our generation must be the one that says “yes” to renewable fuels and ends forever our dependence on foreign oil. Our generation must be the one that accepts responsibility for conserving natural resources and demands the tools to do it. And our generation must be the one that builds the New Energy Economy. How do we do it? It won’t be easy, but it is time to ask the American people to be patriotic about something other than war.
3. If elected President, how would you balance the scientific research at NASA with the manned spaceflight program which, arguably, has dubious scientific value?
I am a strong supporter of our space program. It reflects the best of the American spirit of optimism, discovery and progress.
We need a balanced space and aeronautics program. We need to support solar system exploration as an important goal for our human and robotic programs, but only as one goal among several. And we need to invite other countries to share in a meaningful way in both the adventure and the cost of space exploration.
4. If elected President, what can you do, and what you intend to do to reverse the anti-science trend seen in the USA over the past several years? What is your role as President to enhance public understanding of science and what can you do to ensure quality science education in all public schools in the country at all levels?
For the sake of our future, we need to start young. Our education system shortchanges the skills our children need for the future–math and science, creativity and critical thinking. Every day you can read reports about how we’re falling behind in math and science–our 9th-graders are 18th in the world in science education. We need to invest in the next generation of math and science teachers for our schools. Ninety-five percent of urban high schools report problems getting qualified science teachers. We need higher pay for teachers, college loan forgiveness, and better teacher training programs.
We also need more kids going to college. I will create a national initiative called College for Everyone to pay one year of public-college tuition, fees, and books for more than 2 million students. If we are to compete in the new global economy we must emphasize science, engineering and other technical fields in our education system.
5. In your opinion, what kind of healthcare system would be best poised to respond quickly and efficiently to threats such as avian flu or a bioterrorist attack, and what can a President do to enact such a radical change in the healthcare system?
Right now, we are unprepared for a serious flu outbreak or bioterrorist attack. If such a crisis were to unfold–God forbid–think about what would happen. To start, some people may not even go to the hospital because they don’t have health care. 45 million of us lack basic health care. Those who do go would probably go directly to emergency rooms, which are overcrowded and understaffed. Doctors and nurses in these emergency rooms are often forced to treat these patients without proper patient medical records because of our failure to switch to electronic medical records. Finally, it is possible for hundreds of people to be the victims of an outbreak or attack without anyone ever connecting the dots. Currently, it takes several days for the government to learn about two key factors in any disease outbreak: the progression of the disease through different communities and the availability of vaccine to respond to the disease.
There are some immediate steps we can take to ensure that we are prepared for an outbreak or an attack. First, we need to ensure that people are willing to seek health care if they are sick because they are not worried about paying the bills. Second, we need to bring information technology to our entire health care system so that doctors and nurses who are treating patients have adequate medical records. Third, we need to establish a real-time, unified national tracking system for diseases and for vaccines. Such a system will be easily accessible to public health officials so they can learn how a disease is moving and where to get vaccines.
It’s critical that we maintain a health care safety net that includes public hospitals, clinics, and community health centers. Public hospitals are critical for the valuable trauma and emergency care needed to respond to a public health crisis or bioterrorist attack.
On the federal level, we need better coordination. Over 200 government offices are potentially involved in responding, and I’m concerned that there is not an adequate national plan for coordination and leadership in the event of an epidemic or attack. It is the federal government’s duty to ensure adequate stockpiles of vaccines and antibiotics and to help state and local governments become better prepared for a bioterrorist attack. The federal government also has the responsibility for agricultural and food inspections, which is a critical part of preventing potential public health crises. These are all issues I worked on in the Senate.
6. Would you reverse the 1973 Farm Bill and what else would you do to restructure and reorganize our food-production system thus ensuring the availability of safer, healthier food, making it possible for small farmers to support their families with small farm business, and greatly reducing the use of oil for food production and transportation?
We need a new approach to farm subsidies. Agribusiness is making a killing in the global economy, thanks to our subsidies–but these economic changes are hammering the working people of rural America.
We need a farm bill that supports family farmers, but eliminates the massive subsidies that flow to corporate farms with high incomes. Corporate farms making more than $250,000 a year should not get our tax dollars
In the Senate, I addressed some of the adverse effects of huge corporate farms. For example, I introduced the Concentrated Livestock Existing Alongside Nature (CLEAN) Act to address the air and water pollution caused by mega-farms.
An important part of my plan for a new, clean energy economy, which I mentioned before, is the emphasis on biofuels, which would not only reduce the oil used for food production and transportation but provide a boost to rural economies.
Millions of ethanol-ready cars are on the roads, but only about 600 of the 169,000 gas stations have pumps for E85, a blend of ethanol and gasoline. We will require oil companies to install ethanol pumps at 25 percent of their gas stations and require all new cars sold after 2010 to be “flex fuel” cars running on either gasoline or biofuel.
Finally, we must raise fuel economy standards. American cars and trucks are less efficient than they were two decades ago, despite the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. Standards in China, Japan, and the European Union are between 40 and 100 percent higher. We will raise standards to 40 miles per gallon by 2016, a step that could single-handedly reduce oil demand by 4 million barrels per day.
7. If elected President, what do you intend to do to make sure that you receive trustworthy scientific information and that your policies are based on the best available empirical knowledge about the world?
This is a good question. As I said before, the disregard of science by the Bush administration — the censorship of data and analysis of global warming, the treatment of stem cell research, mercury emissions and other subjects – has been shameful.
As president, I will ensure that government professionals charged with the collection and analysis of scientific data–from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to the EPA–are insulated from political influence. Period.
8. How would you address the current problems of scientific research in the USA – stopping the brain-drain, attracting foreign students, energizing young Americans to consider careers in science, the need for balance between basic and applied research, and encouraging development of science in other countries (with free flow of information between nations as well as between scientists and the public in the USA) while still retaining the US dominance?
There are so many things we can and must do. The president can send a signal that science is the cornerstone of American innovation and will support it, free from political agendas and distortions, send a signal that that the United States wants to lead the way in scientific inquiry, not close doors to certain avenues of research.
We must have a sensible policy towards attracting young scholars. International students are a valuable part of our higher education community, and I support our student visa programs. We need to do a better job tracking student visas, but we ought to be able to do that without creating long lines. U.S. consulates have been asked to interview more applicants personally, but have not been given enough resources.
There are so many areas where we should be cooperating with and leading the rest of the world to address common global problems, such as global warming and developing energy-efficient technologies. We need a president who will lead the way in cooperating and solving these problems.
And, as I said before, we need to start young, with strong primary and secondary education programs in math and science, and at the post-secondary level, as well. Colleges are the places where we ensure that America is competitive. Yet, we’ve taken away funding for the NIH and our research universities. That’s just a mistake.
We need to strengthen scientific education in this country. We need to send more kids to college and invest in graduate programs to create a new generation of scientists who will continue to make America stronger and lead the way for the rest of the world.
Thank you, Senator for taking your time to answer my questions. I hope the American voters give you the chance to implement your ideas in the near future.
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