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What the US midterm elections mean for science

America is angry: about lost jobs, the ballooning deficit, and the apparent failure of massive "stimulus" spending to improve the lot of citizens hammered by the worst economic slump since the 1930s. Above all, Americans are angry with politicians who promised change for the better.

As the country gears up for the midterm elections on 2 November, seen as a referendum on President Barack Obama and his Democratic Party's control of Congress, science has found itself in the firing line. Populist Tea Party candidates, some espousing anti-science views, have tapped into the angry mood, and stimulus spending on research is being painted in some electoral races as emblematic of government waste.

"What should be seen as an investment is now being seen as a cost, and the rhetoric we hear is that costs need to be reduced," says Mary Woolley, CEO of Research!America, which lobbies for biomedical science.

Brian Fisher, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, has experienced this harsh political climate. His research has been pilloried by Republicans trying to oust Democratic senators in Texas, California and Oregon. In Oregon, a TV ad run by challenger Jim Huffman features a man complaining to his wife that Senator Ron Wyden "spent $2 million to study exotic ants". Sarcastically, he adds: "And you thought he was out of touch."

This refers to a project headed by Fisher, funded by the National Science Foundation from the stimulus, to catalogue ant species in Madagascar and complete AntWeb, an effort to digitise information on ants worldwide. "I've got emails that say: 'You should be ashamed of yourself. You're not doing cancer research'," Fisher says.

Other scientists fear worse than angry emails. In a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post, climatologist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University at University Park warned of a hostile investigation of climate science if, as expected, the Republicans regain control of the House of Representatives. "The truth is that they don't expect to uncover anything," Mann claimed. "Instead, they want to continue a 20-year assault on climate science."

These elections may be remembered for shaking up the establishment in both parties. The new guard will need to be convinced of the benefits of science - as will a disgruntled public. Fisher has responded to the attacks by explaining how his project will help create a "Dow Jones Index" to measure threats to global biodiversity. He urges other researchers to follow his lead: "Scientists have to take on the challenge of being advocates."

The entire House, more than a third of the Senate and 37 state governorships are up for grabs. Here, New Scientist highlights electoral races with implications for science, technology and the environment.
 
 

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