Comment »Posted on Tuesday 16 September 2008 at 2:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Education, Science Policy, Yes, But When?

In our increasingly technological world, scientific understanding is a vital skill for any modern day politician. Our leaders need to know how to tackle problems like climate change and manage controversial research such as stem cell research. Science is becoming politicised more and more, and for the past eight years the President of the United States has been extremely anti-science. George Bush has vetoed bills on stem cell research – a technology that could be used to save millions of lives – and also refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which required signatory countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

In less than two months time, on November 4th, America will elect a new “leader of the free world” in the form of either Barack Obama or John McCain. A self-styled “small group of citizens” decided in November 2007 that a presidential debate on science was required. They formed Science Debate 2008.

Thousands of scientists, engineers and others agreed with the need for debate, and submitted over 3,400 questions for the candidates. These were whittled down to 14 key topics, and submitted to the presidential hopefuls. Obama submitted his answers a few weeks ago, and now that McCain has provided his as well, we can compare the politicians views on science. You can read the full answers, or stick with me for a summary. Quotes are attributed to [O]bama or [Mc]Cain where appropriate.

Head to head on science.

Innovation: Both candidates were concerned with America’s slide from being a leading scientific nation. Obama pointed out that the US is 17th among developed nations for science and engineering degrees – down from third place 30 years ago. He promised increased funding for both research and teachers. McCain also promised more money for researchers and education reform, as well as the defence of American intellectual property around the world. He sees the nurturing of technology, particularly in communication, as key to solving “critical problems” [Mc] like climate change.

Climate change: Speaking of which, both candidates saw climate change as an important issues. McCain said it demanded “urgent attention” [Mc], and Obama believed “there can no longer be any doubt” [O] of human influence on the climate. They were also in agreement on policy: a carbon trading system would be put in place to reduce emissions by 60% below 1990 levels for McCain and 80% for Obama.

Energy: The candidates agree on the need for a sustainable energy policy. Both favour an increased reliance on nuclear power, in addition to renewables such as wind energy. Obama also highlighted the importance of a “more efficient use of energy” [O], utilising new technology to reduce waste.

Education: Obama and McCain both want to increase learning in science and maths by recruiting more teachers in the subjects and paying them more. McCain also spoke of encouraging private corporations to help “identify and maximize” [Mc] potential in students, whilst Obama promised tax credits for higher education in science.

National Security: McCain credited the military for driving forward technology that we all use today: the internet, GPS and Teflon, to name a few. He promised increased research funding for American forces, as did Obama.

Pandemics and Biosecurity: Both candidates emphasised that the US was not fully prepared to respond to attacks by bioweaponry, and pledged money for research into vaccination and detection technology.

Genetics research: In line with the general American attitude to GM food, both candidates favoured research into crops that could lead to higher yields, though Obama stressed the need for “stringent tests” [O] and “stronger regulatory oversight” [O]. They also agreed on genetic modification in humans, stating that whilst gene therapy had the potential to change lives, care had to be taken to avoid “genetic discrimination” [Mc].

Stem cells: An extremely controversial issue in the US, the candidates were divided on stem cell research. Obama “strongly support[s] expanding research on stem cells”, [O] and would lift the ban laid down by President Bush in 2001. He suggested that the “hundreds of thousands of embryos” [O] stored (unused) in fertilization clinics could ethically be used for research, because they would eventually be destroyed anyway. In comparison, McCain refused to “sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress” [Mc], hoping that adult stem cell research would one day rendered the debate “academic” [Mc]. Obama views adult stem cells as falling short of the “gold standard” of embryonic stem cells.

Ocean Health: Both candidates waxed lyrical on their love of the ocean (McCain was a former officer in the US Navy) but had little to say on actual policy. Obama is in favour of ratifying the UN Law of the Sea Convention, which in part refers to ocean conservation.

Space: McCain questioned “whether we can afford not to” [Mc] continue exploration of space, and pointed out that “space activities have contributed greatly to US scientific discovery, national security, economic development and national innovation” [Mc]. He pledged to make space exploration a “top priority” [Mc] and to minimise the gap between the decommissioning of the Space Shuttle and the launch of its replacement. Obama promised NASA “will inspire the world with both human and robotic space exploration” [O] and would help confront challenges such as climate change and energy independence.

Scientific integrity: The candidates took a swipe at George Bush as they agreed that “government decisions should be based on…scientifically-valid evidence” [O] and that “denial of the facts” [Mc] will not help solve “critical problems” [Mc] for the country. They both promised to appoint science advisers as key parts of their administration.

Research: Both candidates promised increased funding in basic research which they view as “the foundation for many new discoveries” [Mc], with Obama pledging cash “at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade” [O].

Health: Understandably, the candidates focused mostly on the cost of the provision of healthcare, rather than the science, but both praised the “scientific and technological developments” [Mc] of US medical research.

Honestly, when it comes to scientific policy, it doesn’t seem there is a huge difference between the two candidates. The only clear difference of opinion I can see is on stem cells, with the candidates following the party policy that you would expect. Does this render Science Debate 2008 pointless? I think not. Their answers to the questions raised in the debate total over 10,000 words – words which have no doubt been put through the wringer of PR and policy making. Even if the debate doesn’t help choose a President, it has certainly got the candidates (and hopefully the nation) thinking about science again.

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