Science helped make the US a global superpower. It won World War II, launched the digital age, and sent humans to outer space. And a lot of it happens at the government’s behest, through legislation and federal funding. But science cannot happen without politics—so it matters how politicians talk about science.
Even when those politicians are speaking at national conventions to nominate their candidate for president. No platform survives an election intact, but the way politicians talk about science can reveal how seriously they take it. So WIRED teamed up with QUID, a San Francisco data analysis startup, to look for key words from every speech given at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
Neither party did great. Not, at least, by our measure. And it’s not like we were looking for paeans to quantum computing. (C’mon, this isn’t Canada.) No, we just looked for keywords—dog whistles, if you will—to say, “Hey, Science, you’re important. For the next four years, I’m gonna take care of you, kid. Just like you take care of me.” The chart below shows how often various science-related words showed up in speeches given at both conventions.
A few obvious trends appear. The Democrats made a big point of framing themselves as the party of science. The Republicans put a bit more emphasis on technology. When they talked about the environment, Democrats frequently referenced climate-related topics, while Republicans focused on fossil fuel energy sources. “Healthcare” won the combined popularity contest—which is really no surprise, since both parties are still arguing over the merits and flaws of Obamacare. Neither party really seemed to care too much about emphasizing space or physics on national televised stage.
Even though the Democrats cheered themselves as believers in science, Republicans speakers were pretty attentive to topical developments in research. Mitch McConnell gets credit as the only person to talk about the opioid crisis, and Ben Carson was the only politician to mention the brain in medical terms. Former NASA astronaut Eileen Collins, speaking at the RNC, is the only speaker to talk at length about space exploration.
This is by no means a complete list of science-related terms. It’s actually barely a third of the list we came up with, which ranged from generalities like the “basic research,” to specific experiments like “LIGO,” “Space Launch System,” and “James Webb Telescope.” None of them were mentioned a single time by either party. Between the extremes were a whole slew of terms nobody cared about: “neutrinos,” “National Science Foundation,” “methane,” “gene editing,” “Zika.”
But none of this is really surprising, right? After all, science is going to take a back seat in the conventions when both parties are concerned that the other is going to drive the country off the edge of a cliff. But both should remember this: No matter who is behind the wheel, the car won’t go anywhere without science.