Science & the Public

Janet Raloff
Science & the Public

McCain Is Bullish on R&D

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Sen. John McCain at last has submitted answers to the 14 written questions posed to each candidate by the Science Debate 2008 organization. The Republican senator’s responses confirm that he’s bullish on research and technology, albeit more fiscally conservative than Obama when it comes to federal funding of research and development.


To date, McCain’s tech stance has been rather ill defined. In his package of responses to the Science Debate group, he fills in a few gaps. For the most part, however, he still resorts to bromides. For instance, he promises to: eliminate wasteful earmarks; promote greater fiscal responsibility by improving science and engineering management within the federal government; develop and implement a global competitive agenda through a series of business roundtables; leverage technologies to create employment in rural areas and among displaced workers; and help the United States regain its position as a world leader in developing, deploying and exporting new technologies.


He does not describe how he’d do those things. Obama generally took a stab at doing so; McCain seems to be waiting to first see if he wins the White House.


The Arizona senator pledged to appoint a science and technology adviser within the White House. That, of course, is hardly news. Every President for decades has maintained such a counselor. Indeed, it’s the minimum that’s now expected.


Greater detail of how McCain would use science and technology emerges in several other policy sectors, however.


Such as energy.


McCain argues “that we must reform our entire energy economy toward a sustainable mix of new and cleaner power sources that meet the multiple shared objective of promoting environmental, economic and national security. One of the prevailing issues of our time and the next presidency will be how to deal with the issues of energy security and sustainability.”


In its search for alternatives to oil, “our government has thrown around enough money subsidizing special interests and excusing failure. From now on, we will encourage heroic efforts in engineering, and we will reward the greatest success.” McCain offers no elaboration on what form that reward might take.

“I further propose we inspire the ingenuity and resolve of the American people by offering a $300 million prize for the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.” Notice, he doesn’t talk about investing Uncle Sam’s resources in developing that next-gen hybrid’s battery — which might cost substantially more than $300 million. The reward is only for getting an affordable battery into the marketplace. It’s a clever carrot to entice industry to accept the inevitable: that propelling vehicles on fossil fuels is so last century.


McCain’s also outspoken on the climate threat.


“No challenge of energy is to be taken lightly, and least of all, the need to avoid the consequences of global warming,” he claims. His proposed cap-and-trade solution to carbon-dioxide emissions from oil and coal has been designed “to give American businesses new incentives and rewards to seek cheaper emission reductions, instead of just new taxes to pay and new regulations to follow. This approach gives people time to adapt, instead of causing a sudden jolt to electricity bills and potential shutdowns of tradition coal-fired plants.”


The last is a jab at Obama’s alternative cap-and-trade proposal, which would cost industry far more (by not offering federal subsidies for the ratcheting down of carbon-dioxide emissions as McCain’s plan would) — and potentially put some companies (or their consumers) in dire financial straits.


McCain said he was “committed to investing $2 billion every year for the next 15 years on clean coal technologies to unlock the potential of America's oldest and most abundant resource. And we will issue a Clean Car Challenge to automakers … [to create] a zero-emission vehicle. We will commit up to a $5,000 tax credit to each and every customer who buys that car.


Green technologies would also be high on a McCain administration’s research agenda. “Americans have always been the world's leaders in innovation, and it's time,” he said, for our economy to adapt and take an active role in the new green international economy.” The idea is welcome and matches what Obama has recommended — in greater detail — throughout his campaign.


One area where McCain had been fairly mum, until now, was science education. His new debate responses finally flesh out what his strategy might look like. “We must strengthen skills of existing science and math teachers through training and education, through professional development programs and community colleges. I believe we must provide funding for needed professional teacher development,” he writes.


“Where federal funds are involved, teacher development money should be used to enhance the ability of teachers to perform in today’s technology driven environment. We need to provide teachers with high quality professional development opportunities with a primary focus on instructional strategies that address the academic needs of their students.


Federal Title II funds go towards improving teacher and principal quality; toward technology upgrades that should improve student achievement; and toward professional development for instructors. The first 35 percent of Title II funding would be directed to the school level so principals and teachers could focus these resources on the specific needs of their schools.” He would direct 60 percent of Title II funding be spent “for incentive bonuses for high performing teachers to locate in the most challenging educational settings, for teachers to teach subjects like math and science, and for teachers who demonstrate student improvement. Payments will be made directly to teachers. Funds should also be devoted to provide performance bonuses to teachers who raise student achievement and enhance the school-wide learning environment.”

Another $250 million competitive-grant program would support states that commit to expanding online education opportunities. “States can use these funds to build virtual math and science academies to help expand the availability of AP Math, Science, and Computer Sciences courses, online tutoring support for students in traditional schools, and foreign language courses,” McCain said. What he didn’t say was whether that quarter billion dollars would be parceled out annually or instead cumulatively support grants paid out over some undefined period — perhaps four to 10 years.

One place where McCain is prepared to spend big: space travel. He vowed that if he won the White House, he’d “ensure that space exploration is top priority and that the U.S. remains a leader; commit to funding the NASA Constellation program to ensure it has the resources it needs to begin a new era of human space exploration; review and explore all options to ensure U.S. access to space by minimizing the gap between the termination of the Space Shuttle and the availability of its replacement vehicle; ensure the national space workforce is maintained and fully utilized;” and complete construction of Space Station National Laboratory and maximize its research and commercialization possibilities.

Below, find synopses of McCain’s answers to the Debate questions. To see how they compare to Obama’s responses, go to our synopsis, or to the Science Debate 2008 website.



Senator McCain's Science Debate Responses
Barack Obama
Science and technology have been responsible for half of the growth of the American economy since WWII. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will you support to ensure that America remains the world leader in innovation?
McCain:

"My policies will provide broad pools of capital, low taxes and incentives for research in America, a commitment to a skilled and educated workforce, and a dedication to opening markets around the globe. I am committed to streamlining burdensome regulations and effectively protecting American intellectual property in the United States and around the globe.

"...In the last decade, there has been an explosion in the ways Americans communicate with family, friends, and business partners; shop and connect with global markets; educate themselves; become more engaged politically; and consume and even create entertainment. America has led the world into this technology revolution because we have enabled innovation to take root, grow, and prosper.

”...I am uniquely qualified to lead our nation during this technological revolution. While in the Navy, I depended upon the technologies and information provided by our nation’s scientists and engineers with during each mission. I am the former chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The Committee plays a major role in the development of technology policy, specifically any legislation affecting communications services, the Internet, cable television and other technologies. Under my guiding hand, Congress developed a wireless spectrum policy that spurred the rapid rise of mobile phones and Wi-Fi technology that enables Americans to surf the web while sitting at a coffee shop, airport lounge, or public park."

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

McCain:

“The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington. Good stewardship, prudence, and simple commonsense demand that we act to meet the challenge, and act quickly.

“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 [CO2] 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. In doing this, we will transition into a low carbon energy future while promoting the technological innovations that keep us on a course of economic growth. … [T]his approach [will] give American businesses new incentives and rewards to seek cheaper emission reductions, instead of just new taxes to pay and new regulations to follow. This approach gives people time to adapt, instead of causing a sudden jolt to electricity bills and potential shutdowns of tradition coal-fired plants.

“I have long supported CAFE standards - the mileage requirements that automobile manufacturers' cars must meet … [and] will strengthen the penalties for violating CAFE standards, and make certain they are effectively enforced.

“To bolster research efforts, government must do more by opening new paths of invention and ingenuity. A McCain administration would establish a permanent research and development tax credit equal to ten percent of wages spent on R&D, to open the door to a new generation of environmental entrepreneurs,” and dramatically boost federal support automotive fuel economy and emissions reductions.”

What policies would you support to meet demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

McCain:

“It is important that we shift to sustainable, clean burning energy sources or advance to technologies that make our more traditional resources cleaner burning.

“As President, I will put the country on track to building 45 new [nuclear] reactors by 2030 so that we can meet our growing energy demand and reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. Nuclear power is a proven, domestic, zero-emission source of energy and it is time to recommit to advancing our use of nuclear energy. …

“In the progress of other alternative energy sources — such as wind, solar, geothermal, tide, and hydroelectric — government must be an ally but not an arbiter. … I've voted against the current patchwork of tax credits for renewable power because they were temporary, and often the result of who had the best lobbyist instead of who had the best ideas. But the objective itself was right and urgent. And when I'm signing laws, … [w]e will reform this effort so that it is fair, rational, and permanent, letting the market decide which ideas can move us toward clean and renewable energy.

A comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, and average U.S. math scores 24th. What role should Uncle Sam play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century?

McCain:

Fewer than 20 percent of undergraduates get degrees in math or science and the share of computer-science majors has fallen by more than 50 percent during the Bush years. “America must address these trends in education and training if it hopes to compete successfully. But I believe that education is an ongoing process. Thus our nation’s education system should not only focus on graduating new students; we must also help re-train displaced workers as they prepare for the rapidly evolving economy. Invigorating our community college system is a good place to start. … [R]ecognizing this, I have long supported grants for educational instruction in digital and wireless technologies, targeted to minorities and low-income students who may not otherwise be exposed to these fields. …

”We must move aggressively to provide opportunities from elementary school on, for students to explore the sciences through laboratory experimentation, science fairs and competitions. We must bring private corporations more directly into the process, leveraging their creativity, and experience to identify and maximize the potential of students who are interested and have the unique potential to excel in math and science.”
Science and technology are at the core of national security like never before. What is your view of how science and technology can best be used to ensure national security and where should we put our focus?
McCain:

"I will strengthen the military, shore up our alliances, and ensure that the nation is capable of protecting the homeland, deterring potential military challenges, responding to any crisis that endangers American security, and prevailing in any conflict we are forced to fight. We are benefiting today from technology that was invented for military use a quarter of a century ago (e.g. the Internet, email, GPS, Teflon). … We need to ensure that America retains the edge in the most strategic areas and I will continue to encourage this with advanced R&D research funding."
Some estimates suggest that if H5N1 Avian Flu becomes a pandemic it could kill more than 300 million people. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from global pandemics or deliberate biological attacks? health care professionals — physicians, nurses, and dentists?
McCain:

Because the threat of a flu pandemic is real, “the international community, the federal government, state and local governments, the health care industry, research community and the business community [must] develop and implement strategies to address this threat.” Fortunately, “such efforts are underway. They need continued development and attention, however, because by their very nature pandemics have the potential to overwhelm society’s response capabilities. …

“Medical surveillance and biological [weapons] detection technology continues to advance rapidly, but it is not where we need it to be. … We need to continue to develop and facilitate the development of next generation automated detectors that can analyze as well as sample biological agents and feed information real-time to public heath and emergency management officials. For both pandemics and biological attacks, our final and perhaps most important line of defense are effective medical countermeasures. We must fund research and development of new medicines and vaccines and make sure that we have adequate stockpiles of countermeasures and a robust and well thought out distribution plan in case crisis strikes."

Genetics has the potential to improve human health and nutrition, but many people are concerned about the effects of genetic modification both in humans and in agriculture. What is the right policy balance between the benefits of genetic advances and their potential risks?

McCain:

“I share in the wonder that unlocking the human genetic code affords and the life-changing treatments and therapies it could allow. But this discovery should inspire restraint equal to its promise to ensure nascent discoveries are not abused. As genetic research becomes increasingly deployed, the need to ensure privacy of human records will become all the more essential, as will be the rigor to ensure there is no genetic discrimination. The scientific potential and ethical issues associated with genetics are important and complex enough that I will actively seek out the wise counsel of experts about how to ensure that we are best serving the needs of the American people.

“Genetic research can already provide real assistance for those in some of the poorest regions who lack access to adequate food sources. Through increased research and development, we can help foster a new Green Revolution like the one that transformed Asia several decades ago.”

Stem cell research advocates say it may successfully lead to treatments for many chronic diseases and injuries, saving lives, but opponents argue that using embryos as a source for stem cells destroys human life. What is your position on government regulation and funding of stem cell research?
McCain:

"While I support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, I believe clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress. Moreover, I believe that recent scientific breakthroughs raise the hope that one day this debate will be rendered academic. I also support funding for other research programs, including amniotic fluid and adult stem cell research, which hold much scientific promise and do not involve the use of embryos. I oppose the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes and I voted to ban the practice of “fetal farming,” making it a federal crime for researchers to use cells or fetal tissue from an embryo created for research purposes."

Scientists estimate that some 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are in serious decline and habitats around the world like coral reefs are seriously threatened. What steps should the United States to protect ocean health?

McCain:

"The environmental health of the oceans and the Great Lakes is a complex, multi-faceted issue requiring attention and action from numerous perspectives. It requires effective coastal zone and watershed management, both point and non-point water pollution management, and more effective fisheries management. It requires coordination and action by local, state and federal government agencies, by addressing issues like invasive aquatic species to agricultural runoff. It is one of the more complex management challenges facing the environment because the ocean ecosystem is affected by so many different activities and sources under so many different management jurisdictions – from sewage discharge treatment facilities, to air pollution depositions, to climate change...

“Ocean health and policy requires better management focus … [and] in no area is this truer than in obtaining a better understanding of the interaction of climate change and the oceans. We need to better understand the ocean’s role in the carbon cycle, in the effects of the massive amount of fresh water resulting from the melting of polar ice, which could dramatically affect global weather patterns, and in the effects of warmer ocean waters on weather — especially coastal storms — and on marine life."

Thirty-nine states expect some level of water shortage over the next decade and scientific studies suggest that a majority of our water resources are at risk. What policies would you support to meet demand for water resources?

McCain:

“As a Westerner, I understand the vital role that water plays in the development of Western economies and to maintaining a high quality of life. Water is truly our lifeblood. I believe that we must develop, manage, and use our limited water supplies wisely and with a conservation ethic to ensure that we have sufficient supplies to meet municipal, tribal, industrial, agricultural, recreational, and environmental needs.” Water rights must be respected, and dispute resolution dealt with through negotiation not litigation.

The study of Earth from space can yield important information about climate change; focus on the cosmos can advance our understanding of the universe; and manned space travel can help us inspire new generations to go into science. Can we afford them all? How would you prioritize space?

McCain:

"The real question is whether we can afford not to. ... Today, we rely more upon our space based assets than at any other time in history. We need the technological advances of these systems to effectively address tremendous challenges such as climate change. Failure to properly address these problems will have devastating effects on the future of the planet. …

“The end of the Cold War and the space race has greatly reduced the profile of space exploration as a point of national pride and an emblem of U.S. power and thus created some degree of "mission-rut" for NASA. At the same time, the scientific community views the use of space as an important observation platform for advancing science by increasing our understanding of the solar system and the universe. In addition, our recent comprehension of the Earth's changing climate is based on data that we have received from our weather and Earth observation satellites. Much of our communications infrastructure is dependent upon space based assets that are essential to the quality of our everyday lives and the economy. …

“I understand the importance of investments in key industries such as space to the future of our national security, environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness, and national pride as a technological leader. Although the general view in the research community is that human exploration is not an efficient way to increase scientific discoveries given the expense and logistical limitations, the role of manned space flight goes well beyond the issue of scientific discovery and is reflection of national power and pride...

“I have been involved in a number of efforts to improve America's scientific prowess within the space arena,” which includes spearheading efforts “to control costs at NASA and promote a space exploration agenda based on sound management, safe practices, and fiscal responsibility. Current U.S. space operations policy commits the U.S. to completing the International Space Station (ISS) by 2010 and then terminating the Space Shuttle flights, with the completion of the ISS. I have called on the Bush Administration to suspend its decommissioning of the shuttle until the next President is in office, and to retain the option of continuing shuttle flights to the ISS in the interim period until the Ares/Orion vehicle is in service.”

Many government scientists report political interference in their job. Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making?

McCain:

“We have invested huge amounts of public funds in scientific research. The public deserves to have the results of that research. Our job as elected officials is to develop the policies in response to those research results. … Integrity is critical in scientific research. Scientific research cannot succeed without integrity and trust.My own record speaks for integrity and putting the country first, not political agendas.”

For many years, Congress has recognized the importance of science and engineering research to realizing our national goals. Given that the next Congress will likely face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in basic research in upcoming budgets?

McCain:

“With spending constraints, it will be more important than ever to ensure we are maximizing our investments in basic research and minimizing the bureaucratic requirements that eat away at the money designed for funding scientists and science. Basic research serves as the foundation for many new discoveries and represents a critical investment for the future of the country and the innovations that drive our economy and protect our people. …

“We must also ensure that basic research money is allocated to the best science based on quality and peer review, not politics and earmarks. I am committed to reinvigorating America’s commitment to basic research, and will ensure my administration funds research activities accordingly. … I will continue my commitment to ensure that the funding is properly managed and that the nation's research needs are adequately addressed.”

Americans are increasingly concerned with the cost, quality and availability of health care. How do you see science, research and technology contributing to improved health and quality of life?

McCain:

“[W]hile technologies and the latest research can go a long way toward finding new treatments and reducing costs, government policies must increase the availability of these to the American people. The biggest concern with the American health care system is that it costs too much. Small businesses and families pay more and more every year to get what they often consider to be inadequate attention or poor care. And those who want to buy insurance are often unable to afford health insurance because of the high cost. By promoting research and development of new treatment models, promoting wellness, investing in technology and empowering Americans with better information on quality, we can make health care more affordable”

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