Obama Likes Research

Kudos to the Science Debate 2008 team for relentlessly dogging the candidates to weigh in with details about where they stand on issues affecting and affected by research. After roughly the gestation of a human baby, the Obama campaign and John McCain’s agreed to answer questions, if only in writing. To date, Obama’s is the only one to respond. It turned in its responses on August 28, as the the Democratic National Convention wrapped up in Denver. On August 30, the Science Debate organizers shared those answers.

And those responses offer some reassuring words. They indicate Obama would make heavy use of research in decision-making. Another promising sign, the candidate brags that he has “established an impressive team of science advisers, including several Nobel laureates, who are helping me to shape a robust science agenda for my administration.” He doesn’t identify who this brain trust consists of, but I’m hoping the names emerge prior to the elections.

If he makes it to the White House, Obama plans to surround himself with appointees senior management in his administration who have “strong science and technology backgrounds and unquestioned reputations for integrity and objectivity.” He vowed that these positions would be filled promptly and on a non-partisan basis.

In addition, he would strengthen the role of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST). He doesn’t explain what “strengthen” means i.e. acquire advisers who are more knowledgeable or simply employ their expertise more widely to inform federal decision-making.

But in light of recent reports of muzzled scientists and their findings Obama’s statement on restoring scientific integrity and transparency to federal decision-making is probably even more welcome. True, it should have been a given that scientists could report data and expect that it would be respected, especially by regulators. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been in a number of agencies, especially EPA.

Obama now pledges he would issue an Executive Order “establishing clear guidelines for the review and release of government publications, guaranteeing that results are released in a timely manner and not distorted by the ideological biases of political appointees.” He also promises to strengthen protection for whistle blowers who report efforts to subvert this policy.

The Democratic candidate also has welcome words about increasing the cadre of U.S. workers who are science literate, even science experts. First step: Get good teachers.

Higher education has not been prized by the Bush Administration, at least to the extent of offering support and good incentives carrots, if you will to recruit and motivate science and math teachers. Sen. Barack Obama told the Science Debate team that: “My administration will work to guarantee to students access to strong science curriculum at all grade levels so they graduate knowing how science works [emphasis added] using hands-on, IT-enhanced education.”

That’s important. The recent trend of “teaching to the tests” has resulted in many students being able to offer a rote answer or to use a formula but not understand why that answer was right or that formula was appropriate. The goal should be understanding the material, not just attain a good grade.

Obama also vowed to “launch a Service Scholarship program that pays undergraduate or graduate teaching education costs for those who commit to teaching in a high-need school, and I will prioritize math and science teachers.” His proposal would also create Teacher Residency Academies to add 30,000 new teachers to high-need schools – training thousands of science and math teachers.

Although Sen. John McCain has not yet responded to the debate questions, he has raised education issues on the campaign trail. His stumping has only dealt with education in the general sense, however, not with science education. It’s notable that improving educational achievement in STEM fields science, technology, engineering and math has been a frequent pledge by Obama.

And it came up again in his campaign’s responses to the Science Debate team. For instance, Obama pledges to “support research to understand the strategies and mechanisms that bring lasting improvements to STEM education and ensure that promising practices are widely shared.” The very language used suggests that his campaign recognizes that there may be process issues changes to how science, math and tech are presented and taught that account for the relatively lackluster achievement in these fields by U.S. children.

Obama recently introduced STEM legislation that would establish a committee within the Office of Science and Technology Policy to coordinate federal agencies’ activities in promoting STEM education and consolidate within the Department of Education an Office of STEM Education. Such reform should encourage the development of common content standards and assessments for STEM education at the state and local levels, he says, “and provide a mechanism for sharing the latest innovations and practices in STEM education with educators.”

What Obama doesn’t explicitly deal with in his Science Debate responses is the disenchantment many teachers have developed over the years as their schools have struggled to meet George Bush’s ill-conceived No Child Left Behind policy. The concept behind that policy was a good one, its execution very flawed, as almost any teacher or school principal will tell you. Teachers are losing their joy and idealism as they are forced to rush through lessons and cover all of the topics that their students will be tested on. They can’t move at the pace their students need, but must instead march to the beat of external auditors.

Let’s hope that rewriting the Bush chapter in education reform proceeds quickly whoever enters the White House and lets teachers get back to teaching to the students, not to some state tests.

When asked about how he would transition the United States from an energy hog and polluter that’s played a major role in threatening climate change, Obama pointed to the value of investing in research. However, the political-economic climate can also prove important, he said. And toward stabilizing that climate, he recommended creating “a strong, predictable market for energy innovations with concrete goals that speed introduction of innovative products and provide a strong incentive for private R&D investments.”

Toward this end, he would look to set goals for: reducing the energy used in new buildings by 50 percent and in existing buildings by 25 percent throughout the next decade; taking steps toward halving energy use per unit of gross domestic product within the next two decades or so; boost automotive fuel economy standards 4 percent per year (providing loan guarantees for domestic auto plants and parts manufacturers to build new fuel-efficient cars domestically); extending the energy production tax credit for five years; and developing a Renewable Portfolio Standard that would make utilities produce at least 10 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2012 (and 25 percent by 2025).

At least as importantly, Obama said he would ensure that all federal regulations and incentives support these energy and environmental goals in ways that encourage innovation and ingenuity. It’s tall talk and likely to be hard to actually carry out. At least during one term in office. On the other hand, without this kind of integrated approach to energy thrift and cleverness, we’ll never get out of the pickle we’re in. So kudos for at least thinking big and anticipating where some hiccups may emerge.

Obama would also “encourage communities around the nation to design and build sustainable communities that cut energy use with walkable community designs and expanded investment in mass transit.” Notice the word “encourage.” That may reflect a recognition that these issues fall within the province of state and local governments, which have their own ideas of what’s needed and shrinking budgets to deal with maintaining even the status quo.

When asked to address defense issues, research again figured big in Obama’s responses. But so did some other logistical concerns such as an erosion of the domestic manufacturing capacity to churn out parts for the increasingly sophisticated tools of war. “I will implement the recommendations of the Defense Science Board on defense manufacturing,” Obama said.

There’s more. Much more.

I offer a digest of Obama’s answers below. However, I recommend that you read the full questions and answers at the Debate’s website.

McCain, it’s now your turn to step up to your keyboard and tell us where you stand. [Actually, McCain’s team has now done just that. To see how they compare to Obama’s responses, go to our synopsis of his answers, or to the Science Debate 2008 website.]

Sen. Obama’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?

Obama: “Ensuring that the U.S. continues to lead the world in science and technology will be a central priority for my administration . . . but we face unprecedented challenges that demand new approaches. For example, the U.S. annually imports $53 billion more in advanced technology products than we export. China is now the world’s number one high technology exporter. This competitive situation may only worsen over time because the number of U.S. students pursuing technical careers is declining. The U.S. ranks 17th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering; we were in third place 30 years ago.

My administration will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics, and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade. We will increase research grants for early-career researchers to keep young scientists entering these fields. We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies. And we will invest in the breakthrough research we need to meet our energy challenges and to transform our defense programs.”

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?

Obama: “First, the U.S. must get off the sidelines and take long-overdue action . . . to reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions. . . . We must also take a leadership role in designing technologies that allow us to enjoy a growing, prosperous economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions . . .. With the right incentives, I’m convinced that American ingenuity can do this, and in the process make American businesses more productive, create jobs, and make America’s buildings and vehicles safer and more attractive.”

His plan calls for 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. . . I will require all pollution credits to be auctioned.”

In contrast to the current administration, Obama would reengage the United States in active negotiations with the United Nations on climate issues and create a G-8+5 Global Energy Forum to develop low-polluting energy options.

Finally, he wants to develop a Technology Transfer Program dedicated to exporting climate-friendly technologies, including green buildings, clean coal and advanced automobiles. This should help developing countries combat climate change.

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

Obama: “I have proposed programs that, taken together, will increase federal investment in the clean energy research, development, and deployment to $150 billion over 10 years.” That research would include: basic research in areas related to alternative fuels and chemicals; tech to greatly reduce energy uses by buildings; next-gen, high-mileage vehicles; advanced energy storage technologies to lower the cost of electric generating technologies, and plug-in hybrid vehicles; new approaches for capturing and sequestering greenhouse gases produced by coal burning; and new tech to make nuclear power safer, less costly, and less vulnerable to proliferation risks.

“I will also work closely with utilities to introduce a digital smart grid” that manages electrical demand and makes good use of renewable energy sources, and energy-storage technologies.

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?

Obama: “All American citizens need high quality science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education that inspires them to know more about the world around them, engages them in exploring challenging questions, and involves them in high quality intellectual work. STEM education is no longer only for those pursuing STEM careers; it should enable all citizens to solve problems, collaborate, weigh evidence, and communicate ideas. I will work to ensure that all Americans, including those in traditionally underrepresented groups, have the knowledge and skills they need to engage in society, innovate in our world, and compete in the global economy.”

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?

Obama: “When Sputnik was launched in 1957, President Eisenhower used the event as a call to arms for Americans to help secure our country and to increase the number of students studying math and science . . . Our nation is again hearing a threatening “ping” in the distance, this time not from a single satellite in space but instead from threats that range from asymmetric conflicts to cyber attacks, biological terror and nuclear proliferation. I will lead the nation to be prepared to meet this 21st-century challenge by investing again in math and science education.”

In addition, he vowed to “put basic defense research on a path to double and will assure strong funding for investments in DOD’s applied research programs. We will enhance the connections between defense researchers and their war-fighting counterparts. And, we will strengthen defense research management so that our most innovative minds are working on our most pressing defense problems. . . . Renewing the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will be a key part of this strategy.

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?

Obama: “Overseas, I will launch a Shared Security Partnership that invests $5 billion over three years to forge an international intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure to take down
terrorist networks. I will also strengthen U.S. intelligence collection overseas to identify and interdict would-be bio-terrorists before they strike and expand the U.S. government’s bioforensics program for tracking the source of any biological weapon. I will work . . . to make any use of disease as a weapon declared [globally] a crime against humanity.

And to ensure our country is prepared should such an event occur, we must provide our public health system across the country with the surge capacity to confront a crisis and improve our ability to cope with infectious diseases. I will invest in new vaccines and technology to detect attacks and . . . their origin, so that we can react in a timely fashion.”

He also said he would see that supplies of medicines, vaccines, and diagnostic tests were available to hospitals and physicians, and that research into countermeasures would become a priority.

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?

Obama: “Advances in the genetic engineering of plants have provided enormous benefits to American farmers. I believe that we can continue to modify plants safely with new genetic methods, abetted by stringent tests for environmental and health effects and by stronger regulatory oversight guided by the best available scientific advice.

Disease treatment and identification is likewise being transformed by modern genetics. Recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology has produced a number of products such as human growth hormone or insulin or other complicated proteins . . . involved in bone metabolism, immune response, and tissue repair. The promise of rDNA is its ability to sidestep potentially harmful intermediaries that could have a pathogenic effect. . . . [T]he NIH established the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, which now provides advice and guidance on human gene therapy as well as other ethical concerns or potential abuse of rDNA technology. Until we are equipped to ascertain the safety of such methods, I will continue to support the activities and recommendations of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.”

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?

Obama: “I strongly support expanding research on stem cells. I believe that the restrictions that President Bush has placed on funding of human embryonic stem cell research have handcuffed our scientists and hindered our ability to compete with other nations. As president, I will lift the current . . . ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines created after August 9, 2001 through executive order, and I will ensure that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight.

“ . . . [T]here have been suggestions that human stem cells of various types, derived from sources other than embryos, make the use of embryonic stem cells unnecessary. I don’t agree. While adult stem cells, such as those harvested from blood or bone marrow, are already used for treatment of some diseases, they do not have the versatility of embryonic stem cells and cannot replace them. Recent discoveries indicate that adult skin cells can be reprogrammed to behave like stem cells; these are exciting findings that might in the future lead to an alternate source of highly versatile stem cells. However, embryonic stem cells remain the “gold standard,” and studies of all types of stem cells should continue in parallel for the foreseeable future.

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??

Obama: “Protection of the oceans is one of the many reasons I have developed an ambitious plan to reduce U.S.
emissions of greenhouse gases . . . We need to enhance our understanding of the effect of climate change on oceans and the effect of acidification on marine life through expanded research programs at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). I will propel the U.S. into a leadership position in marine steward-ship and climate change research.”

A lso, “I will work actively to ensure that the U.S. ratifies the Law of the Sea Convention – an agreement supported by more than 150 countries that will protect our economic and security interests while providing an important international collaboration to protect the oceans and its resources.”

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?

Obama: First, prices and policies must be set in a ways that give everyone a clear incentive to use water efficiently and avoid waste. Regulations affecting water use in appliances and incentives to shift from irrigated lawns to “water smart” landscapes are examples. Second, information, training, and, in some cases, economic assistance should be provided to farms and businesses that will need to shift to more efficient water practices.

“ . . . [I]t is also critical that we undertake a concerted program of research, development, and testing of new technologies that can reduce water use.”

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?

Obama: “NASA not only will inspire the world with both human and robotic space exploration, but also will again lead in confronting the challenges we face here on Earth, including global climate change, energy independence, and aeronautics research. In achieving this vision, I will reach out to include international partners and to engage the private sector to amplify NASA’s reach.”

Until 1973, the National Aeronautics and Space Council oversaw the entire space arena for four presidents. “[T]he Council was briefly revived from 1989 to 1992. I will re-establish this Council reporting to the President. It will oversee and coordinate civilian, military, commercial, and national security space activities. It will solicit public participation, engage the international community, and work toward a 21st century vision of space that constantly pushes the envelope on new technologies as it pursues a balanced national portfolio that expands our reach into the heavens and improves life here on Earth. “

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?

Obama: “I believe such information must be expert and uncolored by ideology. I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointtees. More broadly, I am committed to creating a transparent and connected democracy, using cutting-edge technologies to provide a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America’s citizens. Policies must be determined using a process that builds on the long tradition of open debate that has characterized progress in science, including review by individuals who might bring new information or contrasting views.”

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?

Obama: “[C]ontinued investment in fundamental research is essential for ensuring healthier lives, better sources of energy, superior military capacity, and high-wage jobs for our nation’s future. Yet, today, we are clearly under-investing in research across the spectrum of scientific and engineering disciplines. . . . As a result, our science agencies are often able to support no more than one in ten proposals that they receive, arresting the careers of our young scientists and blocking our ability to pursue many remarkable recent advances. . . . [I]n this environment, scientists are less likely to pursue the risky research that may lead to the most important breakthroughs.

As president, I will increase funding . . . at a rate that would double basic research budgets [in 10 years].”

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?

Obama: “It’s wrong that America’s health care system works better for insurance and drug companies than it does for average Americans, who face skyrocketing health care costs. My plan makes health care more secure and affordable by strengthening employer-based coverage, protecting patients’ ability to choose their own doctors, and saving families $2,500 dollars by requiring insurance companies to cover prevention and limiting excessive insurance company charges.

. . . Overall, I am committed to three major tasks that will be necessary to confront widespread concerns about the nation’s health: provision of health-care plans to all of our citizens; comprehensive efforts to make our health care system more cost-efficient; and continued biomedical research to understand diseases more thoroughly and find better ways to prevent and treat them.”

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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