The Science Vote: Spending priorities differ

Federal funding for academic research — a major engine of innovation — has experienced an “unprecedented” two-year decline, the National Science Foundation reported in late August. Between fiscal years 2005 and 2007, Uncle Sam’s share of academic research funding fell from 64 percent to 62 percent. To take up the slack, universities turned to industry backers and others. Universities have also “tapped into their own endowment and gift funds,” according to a report in the Aug. 25 Inside Higher Ed.

“If we don’t fund basic research at a high enough level, over time it will catch up with us,” diminishing research payoffs in terms of ideas, products and spin-off technologies, says Samuel M. Rankin III. Associate executive director of the American Mathematical Society, in Washington, D.C., he’s also a spokesman for the Coalition for National Science Funding.

Obama told the Science Debate 2008 committee (a group that unsuccessfully called for the major presidential candidates to debate on S&T issues) that he would double federal funding for basic research —pioneering studies for which applications may not yet be apparent. He would also “put basic defense research on a path to double.”

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a McCain adviser, agrees with charges that President George W. Bush’s policies have amounted to a war on science. “This is a sad era in that regard,” he said in August in a National Public Radio interview. He added, however, that McCain believes that Obama’s call for doubling basic research investments is unreasonable because it “doesn’t reflect a balancing of relative priorities” in this era of “scarce taxpayer dollars.”

Stacie M. Propst of Research!America, a biomedical advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va., points to similar variances in responses to policy questions her group sent to the candidates.

Take the National Institutes of Health. She says inflation has eroded the buying power of its research budgets. McCain told her group that he strongly supported funding for NIH — and for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. However, McCain’s campaign did not check a box saying he would increase funding for any of these agencies.

In contrast, Obama checked boxes to increase funding for all three agencies. He added that the FDA is badly underfunded, urgently needs better experts to inspect food and other regulated products, and must abolish “pressures to silence internal drug-safety critics” or attempts to protect drug companies from product liability.

In general, Propst says, there are many “commonalities” in the candidates’ attitudes toward biomedical research, including the favoring of an expansion in federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. However, McCain’s answers do suggest “a pretty big distinction, in our minds,” from the aggressive support for research evinced by Obama’s responses, she says.

Interpretative differences also emerge in the candidates’ attitudes toward evolution. Although both profess to believing in it, they differ on the appropriateness of teaching creationism — sometimes portrayed as “intelligent design” — in public schools. Obama told the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania that “there’s a difference between science and faith.… And I think it’s a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don’t hold up to scientific inquiry.”

In contrast, McCain’s campaign told the Christian Broadcasting Network last year that “McCain believes evolution is supported by science, but that we shouldn’t be afraid to expose students to other theories.” Two years earlier, McCain said much the same thing in a videotaped meeting with staffers from the Arizona Daily Star. When asked whether children should learn about intelligent design in science classrooms, McCain responded that plenty of scientists think so — and “all points of view should be presented.”

Both candidates strongly support the space program and value domestic development of innovative technologies, and both would continue aggressive wetlands preservation. However, Obama’s campaign has released far more data on its candidate’s S&T views and education proposals than has McCain’s.

For instance, Obama told the Science Debate 2008 group that he would “guarantee” students have access to strong science curricula at all ages “so they graduate knowing how science works using hands-on, IT-enhanced education.” He also vowed to launch a scholarship program to subsidize the education of teachers who commit to teaching in “a high-need school.” Priority would go to those who would teach math and science. And new Teacher Residency Academies would place 30,000 educators at high-need schools, Obama said, “training thousands of science and math teachers.”

McCain countered a week later with his S&T teacher proposal. He would reallocate federal Title II funding by earmarking more of it to reward high-performing teachers, principals and schools. Priority, he told Science Debate 2008, would go to teachers working in the “most challenging educational settings and who teach science or math.” He would also set up a $250 million competitive grant program for states that commit to expanding online education opportunities.

Obama has posted a detailed technology agenda. Among its goals: making broadband Internet access universally available; increasing the “transparency” of federal decision making by posting almost all documents and broadcasting most meetings online; and appointing the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer, who would ensure that all federal agencies seamlessly communicate their data internally and with the public. That’s a tall order, but points to Obama’s recognition of how integral Internet access and data-searching have become for most Americans.

McCain, in contrast, boasts about his low-tech lifestyle. In a brief interview  posted on YouTube, Mike Allen of Yahoo! News asked McCain whether he used a PC or Mac computer. His answer: “Neither. I am an illiterate that has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance that I can get.” Many tech pundits and bloggers latched onto this professed discomfort with the cyberworld as a likely reason for McCain’s sketchily detailed tech policy.

Albert H. Teich, Science & Policy Programs director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Washington, D.C., has expressed concerns over the degree of McCain’s comfort with technology and over his misunderstanding of science and its value.

For instance, Teich notes, the candidate has repeatedly lambasted a federal study for analyzing DNA in grizzly bear fur. Researchers outside the project have generally argued that the study’s data could prove extremely useful to conservation of this animal — an elusive species threatened with extinction. Its population may total only 1,500 individuals throughout the lower 48 states. Yet McCain jokes that these studies must have been for paternity tests. Calling the work frivolous, McCain’s TV ads argue that the research should be abolished.

Such assertions haven’t gotten a lot of attention, Teich says, “but for me they’re bright lines” calling into question McCain’s science literacy.

Then again, with the notable exception of British chemist Margaret Thatcher, most world leaders don’t consider science one of their strengths. Indeed, that’s why most surround themselves with legions of expert advisers.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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