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Science Policy in the U.S. Presidential Election

Sifting through the Candidates Scientific Positions

During the past few weeks, the grass-roots initiative called "ScienceDebate 2008" finally received what they have been working towards: U.S. Presidential candidates talking specifics about science and technology. Just a year ago this initiative had only six members but now has tens of thousands of supporters that form a unique collaboration of scientists, engineers, scientific organizations, university administrators, government officials, journalists, and business leaders. The two major party presidential candidates, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Barack Obama (D-IL), answered fourteen science and technology questions ranging from federal funding, energy, stem cells, and national security. The candidates' full answers to each of the fourteen questions can be found on the Science Debate 2008 website←. An example of their positions on a cap-and-trade system. for example, are provided below in a selection of their answers pertaining to this question about climate change:

The Earth's climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change—a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research? Are there other policies you would support?

Senator Obama's answer:

"Specifically, I will implement a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. I will start reducing emissions immediately by establishing strong annual reduction targets with an intermediate goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. A cap- and-trade program draws on the power of the marketplace to reduce emissions in a cost- effective and flexible way. I will require all pollution credits to be auctioned."

Senator McCain's answer:

"To dramatically reduce carbon emissions, I will institute a new cap-and-trade system that over time will change the dynamic of our energy economy. By the year 2012, we will seek a return to 2005 levels of emissions, by 2020, a return to 1990 levels, and so on until we have achieved at least a reduction of sixty percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050...

For me, evaluating each candidate's response was similar to grading an essay exam. There was no clearly defined rubric and sometimes one candidate had specific answers while the other's were very general. Each candidate agreed on big picture details like the need for federal funding of the basic sciences, use of a cap and trade system to reduce CO2 emissions to mitigate global warming, and the need for further developing alternative energy. Their differences were more evident when examining their plans to accomplish these tasks. Listed below are summaries of their stances onother issues specifically relevant to a geochemist but I highly encourage you to read their complete responses to all fourteen questions.

Research: Sen. Obama outlined a proposal that would double the budget of basic science funding in physical and life sciences, mathematics, and engineering over the next decade. Sen. McCain response emphasized his support of federal science funding over his tenure in the Senate. While his plan did not offer any specific promises of increased funding (because of budget constraints), his plan will try to maximize its investment into science funding by better management of funds and eliminating wasteful spending.

Energy: Sen. McCain's energy plan calls for the construction of 45 new nuclear power reactors by 2030 and the use of tax and monetary incentives, like a $300 million prizes for development of new battery technology, to jump start economic growth in the fields of alternative energies. Sen. Obama plans to spend $150 billion for research, development, and deployment of alternative energy sources, carbon sequestration, and new generation of nuclear electric technology.

Water: The candidates agree that better efforts need to occur in the arena of water conservation and efficiency at the federal, state, and local levels. Sen. Obama will use price and policy to provide incentives for conservation as well as training and if necessary, economic assistance to aid individuals and business to transition into better water practices. Sen. McCain does not believe water rights should be decided in courts. He calls for states and water uses to come together for increase dialog to find cooperative agreements for water rights.

Space: Sen. McCain vows to make space exploration one of his top priorities. He has already asked the Bush administration to suspend its plan to decommission the current space shuttle and promises to keep appropriate funding levels for space exploration. Sen. Obama wants to bolster NASA's research abilities by involving international partners and the private sector. He will also re-establish National Aeronautics and Space Council to orchestrate space exploration throughout all sectors of the government.

Science Integrity: Each candidate stated that science policy should be based on scientific evidence and not by governmental politics. Sen. McCain plans to appoint a Science and Technology Advisor within the White House and to place qualified scientist in various positions within his administration. Sen. Obama will make government more transparent by establishing an Executive Order that guarantees the timely release of non-distorted government publications and he will establish the nation's first Chief Technology Officer who will oversee scientific and technical issues within governmental agencies.

Overall ScienceDebate 2008 can be viewed as a great example of how scientists and engineers can successfully become lobbyists. Even though the numerous benefits of federal research funding seems obvious to people within the field, it can be very helpful to give a first hand reminders to elected officials who agree to pay the bills. This may seem like a daunting task but it is not a job one has to go alone. There are many organizations that provide general science and technology (e.g., AAAS) or geology-specific (e.g., American Geological Institute) legislative information that allow scientists and engineers easy access to information. The ability of scientists and engineers to continue to be effective lobbyists could turn out to be vital for science over the next few years with increasing amounts of stress on the federal budget.

Deric R. Learman
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Cambridge, MA