Election 2008: What about science?

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October 20, 2008

12:38 PM

The Sept. 25 issue of the scientific journal Nature focused on the U.S. election, and what each candidate would mean for the future of science and technology.

Science has taken a back seat in this election, and understandably so. But there is potential for big changes in U.S. science based upon the next president.
The good news is either candidate should improve the U.S. scientific landscape. For one, it is thought that new leaders of agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institute of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency will bring welcome change, regardless of which candidate ends up appointing them.

Both candidates have a good background in science and technology. Since early in his career, Obama has tried to employ technology for the development of impoverished areas. He wants to extend this approach and employ technology to solve health care and climate change issues. McCain has science and technology experience from heading the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, in various times between 1997 and 2001.

The differences in McCain’s and Obama’s stances on scientific issues are not great, at least not in the issues that have been raised during the campaign. Both would support lifting the ban on stem cell research. Both voted for 2007 America COMPETES Act, which authorized doubling physical science research organizations’ budgets.

Sarah Palin, however, might be a stumbling block on the issue of stem cell research. While McCain has voted twice to lift the ban, Palin is opposed to any form of embryonic stem cell research. If McCain were elected, it would be his opinion that matters—but it is possible that he would compromise on this issue. Either way he supports research for alternative stem cell methods, such as deriving pluripotent stem cells from adult cells.

Since the candidates are both generally supportive of science and technology research, whom they get their advice from is the most important consideration.

Obama gets his advice mostly from the academic world. He has close ties with Austan Goolsbee, of the University of Chicago, and Harold Varmus former director of the NIH and now head of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The rest of the list includes professors from Stanford and University of Michigan Ann Arbor and loose affiliations with several Nobel laureates. Tom Kalil, the architect of Hillary Clinton’s science platform also provides advice.

McCain’s main advisors for science and technology are from political and corporate spheres. He receives advice from Floyd DesChamps of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. He also gets technical advice from corporate leaders such as Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, and Meg Whitman, the former chief executive of eBay. The science issue that McCain has focused on has been energy policy. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, is his main advisor on this issue. Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser Robert McFarlane (a renewable-energy advocate) and James Schlesinger, secretary of defense under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and secretary of energy under Jimmy Carter, also advise McCain.

Regardless of the outcome on November 4th, in terms of U.S. science and technology, there is nowhere to go but up. But how far we go, and in what direction, will depend on the next leaders’ ability to appoint the right people, listen to the right voices, and make logical decisions rather than one based on purely political motivations.

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