When science and politics collide

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama looks through a microscope as he tours a biotech classroom at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, December 6, 2010.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama vowed to put science at the top of America's agenda. Has he done so?

The Daily Circuit held a discussion Thursday about policy and science — specifically, the ways in which public policy ignores science. Here are a few of the science-policy collisions mentioned by our guests, callers and others.

Got an example of policy that flies in the face of science? Leave your idea in the comments section below.

• Climate change. The science is fairly clear, but policy responses are hopelessly mired in politics.

"We are going to be forced to rebuild the infrastructure of our society," said Adam Frank, physics professor at the University of Rochester.

"That is going to involve trillions of dollars, and there are going to be winners and losers. And some of the politicization comes from the fact of the very political maneuvering for people who don't want to lose."

"One of the things we don't really teach people is to make the association between their own behavior and how they view science," Frank said.

"You go to a doctor, and the doctor says, 'You need these antibiotics.' You take the antibiotics. ... You basically say, 'OK, I trust you, you're my doctor, fine, no problem.' And then they get to something like climate change, and people are all up in arms, and it's a bunch of hoaxes. ...

"Science is not a buffet table. The science that's in your life, you should treat with all the same attitude. I [wrote an article that] said, 'Climate deniers, give up your cell phones.' Because you can't say, 'I want this science, but I don't want that science.' We have to learn to be consistent in our approach to science so that we have a more reasonable expectation about what it gives us and what it can't give us."

• Brain science and education.

Mitch in Bemidji called to say: "For decades, 40-some years, science has said that 90 percent of brain development happens before the age of 5. And the state of Minnesota finally figured this out this past year. But as far as the nation goes, we spend probably 95 percent of our education funding on 5 years and older. So right now as a nation we're funding shutters and trim pieces and we're putting absolutely nothing into the foundation that we're building these people on. It's absolutely ridiculous."

• Sex education.

Rebecca on Twitter said that the "Science-policy gap is very evident in discussions of comprehensive sex education for adolescents."

• School start times for teenagers.

Liz called from St. Paul: "Kids do better, they show up more, get better grades, higher test scores, if the start time is later. We've known this for years. Their biorhythms are different. They go to sleep later, they get up later. So how come St. Paul schools have high schoolers starting at 7:15 in the morning?"

• Universal health care.

Rosemary on Twitter said that people in countries with single-payer insurance are healthier than people in the United States.

• Vaccines. Many people refuse to get their children vaccinated, despite strong science that says they should.

Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, said, "There is a view out there and it exists despite being shown repeatedly to be wrong: that if another individual just understood the facts as I've come to understand them, they would then come to share my values. ...

"Vaccines are a great example. Here in Boulder, Colo., we have the highest incidence of whooping cough and the highest incidence of Ph.D.s at the same time. So it's clear that having high education is not by itself going to dictate those valued outcomes."

• Ethanol.

Listener Trish wrote in to say, "We know it takes more energy to produce ethanol than it nets as a fuel source. The fact that we subsidize ethanol production drives me crazy!"

Add your examples below!

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