Letters to the Editor: The politics of science

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This March the President approved the federal spending budget, which
included increased funding for science. Scientific discovery directly
improves human health and gives us our latest tech gadgets. We represent
the local chapter of 500 Women Scientists, a national organization of
over 20,000 members that promotes open, inclusive, and accessible
science, and asked candidates for Congress in NY23, NY State Senator
District 58, and New York Governor their views on science issues
important to our district. Some candidates did not respond after
repeated attempts, but we are presenting the full responses of
candidates here and at our website, ithaca500womensci.weebly.com.

Candidate Responses to 500 Women Scientists, Ithaca Chapter

Tracy Mitrano, Democratic candidate for congressional representative of the New York 23rd district

  1. Scientific Integrity: Some politicians are openly disputing well-established scientific facts and ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence, excluding it from policy decision-making processes. Will you take actions to support science? To what extent do you plan to include science in policy decisions?

Science and the scientific method is the best process through which we can learn about our world. It is critical that our policymakers and representatives not only pay attention to science, but they also actively seek out the best, most relevant sources of scientific knowledge. Residents across our district are leading experts on environmental science, health care, and social sciences. In Congress, I plan to consult with local and national organizations of scientists in order to develop policies that properly protect our environment and serve the interests of our nation and our world.

  1. Education. STEM skills are increasingly valuable given the need for a technically competent workforce. Becoming a scientist takes many years of schooling, yet education is increasingly expensive. Students are being saddled with debt that constrains their life choices. How will you address student debt and ensure that all students have equal opportunity to pursue their career choices?

The American student debt crisis is keeping an entire generation of young people from economic security, starting a family, or truly starting their adult lives. The Higher Education Act is coming up for reauthorization in the next Congress and one of my top priorities will be to lower the usurious interest rates that are imposed on students. On the campaign trail I have met voters who have paid over triple the value of their original loan because Congress has continually bankers to push for federally guaranteed loans at 6-12% interest. We must ensure that students’ tuition is going to fund a better education – not lining the pockets of bankers.

  1. Harassment: The recent National Academies report suggests that harassment of women in academic science is second only to the rates experienced by women in the US military. As a potential solution to this problem, the Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act was introduced in 2016, but never passed. Would you support this legislation and similar local legislation? How do you plan to address problems of sexual harassment, in science and other fields?

I would fully support the Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act and similar local legislation. As we continue illuminating the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, we must act to hold perpetrators accountable and properly protect the rights of women in academic science and beyond. We must continue to strengthen reporting mechanisms and make support services available so that women are not intimidated into silence.

  1. Environmental Stewardship: New York faces numerous health, safety, and economic challenges due to environmental impacts to our land, air, and water. NYS residents are grappling with alternative energy sources, lead contamination in drinking water, and problems, like flooding, caused by climate change. What policies and actions will you take if you enter office to help address environmental concerns and safeguard our state? What climate and energy policies do you support?

This summer, flash flooding wreaked havoc across our district as homes in were inundated with rain and water from blocked waterways. We have seen toxic algal blooms affect every Finger Lake and major tributary in region. We must do better to protect our environment and our communities, starting with investment in a 21st century infrastructure that takes the science of climate change and extreme weather events into account. We must pass a federal Anti-Fracking Act that reins in our reliance on fossil fuels and protects our water resources. Finally, we need to better coordinate federal, state, and local resources to ensure clean water and air for residents across the district.

  1. Immigration: A large proportion of scientists in the U.S. are immigrants. They have made significant contributions to U.S. excellence in research and development. Our farm workforce also relies heavily on a foreign-born population. What is your view on the current immigration policies and their potential impact on science, our food system, and immigrant status? What steps, if any, will you take to uphold or change current policies?

Our district and our nation rely on the hard work of immigrants from many different backgrounds. Agriculture and research are two essential aspects of our district’s economy. Both are incredibly dependent on our immigration system and the availability of labor and new ideas. I support expanding both the H1-B and H2-A visa programs in order to support the institutions of higher learning and farmers across our district that depend on immigrants each and every day.

Tom O'Mara, incumbent Republican candidate for New York State Legislature district 58

  1. Scientific Integrity: Some politicians are openly disputing well-established scientific facts and ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence, excluding it from policy decision-making processes. Will you take actions to support science? To what extent do you plan to include science in policy decisions?

I will address this question specifically from the viewpoint of my role as Chair of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee since 2015.  I have tried to consistently stress -- to Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration, and to my state legislative colleagues -- the importance of science-based, rather than political, decision making across the spectrum of the environmental challenges and issues facing local communities and regions across New York State. I am always open for robust and healthy debate and input from experts on all sides of an issue. We in the Legislature are a Jack of All Trades and rarely a Master in one.

  1. Education. STEM skills are increasingly valuable given the need for a technically competent workforce. Becoming a scientist takes many years of schooling, yet education is increasingly expensive. Students are being saddled with debt that constrains their life choices. How will you address student debt and ensure that all students have equal opportunity to pursue their career choices?

I fully share a strong belief in the importance and value of STEM and have supported state-level actions to enhance it statewide. It’s particularly critical to the revitalization of New York State’s manufacturing industry, which has been a personal focus and priority during my legislative tenure.  New York State has taken critical steps to make college more affordable for increasing numbers of students and families. This state-level focus must be ongoing and I will continue to support it.  However, we must do more on the issue of student debt and its debilitating impact across a generation of young people. This issue is not just a NYS issue and does demand an effective response strategy at the federal level, and I certainly encourage that focus.  

  1. Harassment: The recent National Academiesreport suggests that harassment of women in academic science is second only to the rates experienced by women in the US military. As a potential solution to this problem, the Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act was introduced in 2016, but never passed. Would you support this legislation and similar local legislation? How do you plan to address problems of sexual harassment, in science and other fields?

Overall and most recently, I was proud to join my New York State legislative colleagues – in both houses and from both sides of the aisle – and Governor Andrew Cuomo to enact, as part of the 2018-2019 New York State budget, landmark, sweeping new protections to combat sexual harassment.  These new protections represent critical additions to existing state policies and, importantly, significant steps forward in what will be an ongoing mission to create a society free of harassment and abuse.

  1. Environmental Stewardship: New York faces numerous health, safety, and economic challenges due to environmental impacts to our land, air, and water. NYS residents are grappling with alternative energy sources, lead contamination in drinking water, and problems, like flooding, caused by climate change. What policies and actions will you take if you enter office to help address environmental concerns and safeguard our state? What climate and energy policies do you support?

For over a decade now in New York State government, both as a member of the state Assembly and as a state Senator, I have represented districts encompassing the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions that are, in so many ways, defined by the quality of our environments, our natural resources, conservation, outdoor recreation, agriculture, and tourism.

Working across the aisle with my colleague in the State Assembly, Donna Lupardo, I sponsored and passed the first in the nation legislation requiring schools to test school drinking water for lead and to report those results.  The legislation also included aid to the schools to remediate failing results.  I also sponsor Paint Stewardship legislation which would require the paint industry to collect unused paint for recycling or proper disposal.  The Paint Stewardship legislation has passed the Senate unanimously several years in a row, but continues to be blocked in the State Assembly.  I also sponsor legislation to start a Solar Stewardship program to plan now for the recycling, rare materials recovery, and safe disposal prior to this burgeoning industry reaching the end of life cycle for these systems in the next 20 to 30 years.

I have valued numerous opportunities to work with local leaders and citizens in the pursuit of the common goals and personal priorities that I have championed for the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes and all of New York State: farmland preservation and protection; wildlife conservation and pollinator protection; air and water quality; invasive species; and clean energy, to highlight just a few.

Since 2015 as Chair of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, I have been grateful to serve during a time being widely recognized in New York State as one of great achievement in the area of environmental conservation and protection.  I have appreciated the opportunities to move this achievement forward, and I look forward to continuing this important work.

  1. Immigration: A large proportion of scientists in the U.S. are immigrants. They have made significant contributions to U.S. excellence in research and development. Our farm workforce also relies heavily on a foreign-born population. What is your view on the current immigration policies and their potential impact on science, our food system, and immigrant status? What steps, if any, will you take to uphold or change current policies?

The nation’s current immigration policies are broken and it will take a comprehensive federal strategy to fix the system. From both a science and workforce perspective, we need a functioning immigration policy in our country.

Howie Hawkins, Green party candidate for Governor of New York

  1. Scientific Integrity: Some politicians are openly disputing well-established scientific facts and ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence, excluding it from policy decision-making processes. Will you take actions to support science? To what extent do you plan to include science in policy decisions?

The point of policy is to provide real solutions to problems. Solutions have to address realities and scientific evidence is the best way to comprehend realities. I will include scientists in my administration’s policy formulating teams.

I will discuss how I will take this approach with respect to climate change and lead poisoning under question 4 below. Here I will use the example of education policy, where state policy has pushed a high-stakes testing policy that has done nothing to close the achievement gap. It is being used to evaluate and rank teachers and schools despite the peer-reviewed published research indicating teacher quality contributes only between 1% and 14% to student test scores. This research, which has been confirmed repeatedly for 50 years, finds that the strongest factor by far in predicting student scores is family income. This finding indicates educational equity requires broader social reform to reduce poverty. Another finding is that the most powerful reductions in the achievement gap have occurred in schools that are integrated by family income such that poor students compose no more than 40% of the student body. New York’s metro regions have the most segregated schools in the nation by class and by race, which largely corresponds to class. Instead of pushing high-stakes testing – and the corresponding privatization of “failed” high-poverty schools into charter schools – a science-based education policy would promote school desegregation and equitable funding of all schools.

Good education should not be rationed. It is appalling that in New York City wealthy parents are putting 3 and 4 year olds into test prep programs so they can test into the high track in kindergarten. Using standardized tests to place 5 year olds into different tracks as they just start their education is reproducing class and race hierarchies and segregation inter-generationally. Students in the lowest tracks end up in the 40% of New York City high schools that have no physics classes and very few science classes of any kind. With 10% of the children going to school homeless in cities like Syracuse and New York City, tracking should not be a barrier to a student advancing into high-level academic courses when their living situation stabilizes. Tracking to varying degrees occurs in most school districts in New York State. It should be eliminated. Every school should offer every student a full range of academic and vocational courses without tracking.

  1. Education: STEM skills are increasingly valuable given the need for a technically competent workforce. Becoming a scientist takes many years of schooling, yet education is increasingly expensive. Students are being saddled with debt that constrains their life choices. How will you address student debt and ensure that all students have equal opportunity to pursue their career choices?

I support true tuition-free higher education at New York’s public colleges. Assemblymember James Skoufis’ Tuition-Free NY bill in 2014 was priced at $1.5 to $2 billion annually. That would be an excellent investment in developing STEM skills and other higher education outcomes so every student can take their education as far as their interests and efforts can take them. Gov. Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship program was billed as tuition-free public college, but only 3% of SUNY students and 2% of CUNY students have qualified. It requires full-time study, which is impossible for many working-class students who have to work while going to school to support themselves and often their families. It’s a last-dollar tuition program, which means students have to spend all their Pell and other grants before Excelsior kicks in, leaving nothing for living expenses.

I also favor a federal program of student debt relief. Most of the $1.5 trillion in student debt owed by 45 million people is held by the federal government. $1 trillion is owned by the Department of Education, over $300 billion in private debt that is guaranteed by the federal government, and the remainder is private debt without government backing. I support the Federal Reserve buying up that federally owned or guaranteed debt and reducing it on a progressive sliding scale. Students would make reduced payments scaled to their current income for 20 years, with the remainder then cancelled. It would be a debit on the government’s balance sheet, but it would be huge stimulative credit on the other side of the social balance sheet for the 45 million students and former students who could then proceed with their lives without burdensome debt.

  1. Harassment: The recent National Academies report suggests that harassment of women in academic science is second only to the rates experienced by women in the US military. As a potential solution to this problem, the Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act was introduced in 2016, but never passed. Would you support this legislation and similar local legislation? How do you plan to address problems of sexual harassment, in science and other fields?

I do support the Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act and would introduce similar state legislation, especially because the prospects of that federal bill are not good in the next couple of years.

I also support strengthen sexual harassment policy for state employees, which includes the SUNY system. The sexual harassment law enacted in March 2018 needs strengthening. It bans nondisclosure agreements except when the condition of confidentiality is the explicit preference of the victim. It prohibits mandatory arbitration in sexual harassment complaints. It requires government employees found responsible for committing harassment to refund any taxpayer-financed payouts. But it failed to clearly define sexual harassment, which means the policies could be narrowly interpreted and ineffective. The public still cannot access records about harassment claims in the state legislature because it has exempted itself from the state’s own open records law. The law also needs a more expansive definition of gender-based discrimination.

  1. Environmental Stewardship: New York faces numerous health, safety, and economic challenges due to environmental impacts to our land, air, and water. NYS residents are grappling with alternative energy sources, lead contamination in drinking water, and problems, like flooding, caused by climate change. What policies and actions will you take if you enter office to help address environmental concerns and safeguard our state? What climate and energy policies do you support?

I would make lead abatement the highest priority upon entering office. 40% of the children in Syracuse and Buffalo, and lower yet alarming percentages in other cities and towns, have blood levels above the 5 micrograms per deciliter federal standard of safety. Late in the Obama administration, EPA was proposing to lower that standard to 3.5 micrograms. But that proposal died under the Trump administration. The science indicates there is no safe level for young developing children. Elevated blood lead levels result in permanent neurological damage that adversely affects motor skills, cognitive capacities, emotions, and behaviors. This science indicates New York should fund a crash program to remediate the sources of lead poisoning in lead paint, water, and soil and require all rental units to receive lead-safe certification before renting out.

Passing the New York Off Fossil Fuels (NY OFF) bill would also be a top priority. I oppose the Climate and Community Protection Act, which the Assembly has passed three times, on scientific grounds. CCPA would not reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero until 2050. Climate science indicates that is too late to avoid runaway global warming and catastrophic climate change. CCPA says nothing about stopping new fracked-gas and other fossil fuel infrastructure. Its goal is to make New York’s contribution to climate protection by stabilizing greenhouse gases at 450 carbon dioxide equivalent parts per million. That objective was agreed to by the world’s nations based in the International Panel on Climate Change’s fourth report in 2007. But it is out of date. Subsequent peer-reviewed studies, notably those by James Hansen and colleagues, indicate that the goal must be 350 ppm to avert runaway warming. Therefore, I support NY OFF, which will halt new fossil fuel infrastructure and build a 100% clean energy system and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2030. That is what industrial states like New York must do to have any chance of reaching the 350 goal, which, since the level reached 412 ppm in April and May this year, must also involve drawing carbon out of the atmosphere by restoring agricultural soils and reforestation. The NY OFF bill addresses the agricultural, building, and transportation sectors as well as the electric power sector.

  1. Immigration: A large proportion of scientists in the U.S. are immigrants. They have made significant contributions to U.S. excellence in research and development. Our farm workforce also relies heavily on a foreign-born population. What is your view on the current immigration policies and their potential impact on science, our food system, and immigrant status? What steps, if any, will you take to uphold or change current policies?

I would promote policies to make New York a Sanctuary State.

I support the Liberty Act, which would prohibit state agencies from collecting or sharing an individual’s immigration information with federal agencies.

I want to prohibit the use of public funds in New York State to enforce federal immigration laws.

I would maintain Maintain Executive Order 179 (September 15, 2017) that prohibits:

  • state agencies and officers from inquiring about or disclosing an individual's immigration status unless required by law or necessary to determine eligibility for a benefit or service.
  • law enforcement officers from inquiring about immigration status unless investigating illegal criminal activity, including, but not limited to, when an individual approaches a law enforcement officer seeking assistance, is the victim of a crime, or is witness to a crime.

I would maintain the Attorney General's Civil Rights Bureau guidance for local law enforcement to limit their participation in federal immigration enforcement activities, including:

  • refusing to enforce non-judicial civil immigration warrants issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Protection (CBP),
  • protecting New Yorkers' Fourth Amendment rights by denying federal requests to hold uncharged individuals in custody more than 48 hours,
  • limiting access of ICE and CBP agents to individuals currently in custody,
  • limiting information gathering and reporting that will be used exclusively for federal immigration enforcement.

I support the New York DREAM Act to enable 4,500 undocumented students who graduate from high school each year to pursue a college education. 146,000 undocumented youth now in New York will benefit from this law. It would allow undocumented students who meet in-state tuition requirements to access state financial aid and scholarships for higher education. It establishes a DREAM Fund Commission to raise private funds for a college scholarship program for children of immigrants.

I support Drivers Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants, which will enhance public safety as well as equal justice under law. I want to expand the Liberty Defense Project by increasing funding from $10 million to $20 million to provide immigrants with legal services and process. I want a state law to prohibit county sheriff’s from holding undocumented people in county jails at the request of ICE without a court order. I also want a state law to prohibit county jails from serving as detention centers for ICE.

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