Political SCIENCE: Where do the presidential candidates stand on sci-tech Issues?

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By Roger Snodgrass

In the only side-by-side comparison on a range of science issues, the two candidates for president sound roughly similar on many issues, but a closer examination finds differences in tone and substance.

In ScienceDebate2008.com, a comprehensive website and public forum that began as a grassroots call by six citizens for a presidential debate on science, both John McCain and Barack Obama come down solidly in favor of innovation, the basis of the program’s first question.

Obama’s answer to the question about policies that will support American leadership in innovation begins,  “Ensuring that the U.S. continues to lead the world in science and technology will be a central priority for my administration.”

McCain’s statement opens, “I have a broad and cohesive vision for the future of American innovation.”

Both speak of the competitive importance of American innovation, but a closer look reveals potential differences, for example, in whether innovation will be centered in the public or private domain.

Obama vows to increase funding for basic research and to back the competitiveness initiative that has won broad support in Congress in recent years, but failed to gain funding.

McCain has also supported that package , but has been reluctant to say how fully.

In his written answer, he commits to “streamlining burdensome regulations and effectively protecting American intellectual property in the United States and around the globe.”

Elsewhere he identifies “my commitment to innovation” with “my commitment to the well-established entrepreneurial spirit of America’s thinkers and tinkerers…” and making sure inventions can be brought to market.

These differences were reinforced or elaborated during the first presidential debate of the season on Sept. 27, when Obama was the first to mention the word science, as among his priorities that he would not give up because of the financial rescue plan that was under discussion at the time.

“I thought it was very interesting where he mentioned it,” said Ed Fennimore, a Laboratory Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a gamma-ray researcher. “He really believes that science and technology are a big part of the solution.”

Fennimore was particularly impressed during the week before the debate that 61 Nobel laureates had signed a letter endorsing Obama.

“I think that’s the greatest number of Nobel-prize winners ever to endorse anybody,” he said. “And that’s all scientists, in medicine, chemistry and physics, not counting those in economics and peace.”

Cheryl Rofer, a retired chemist from the laboratory, now a blogger at WhirledView (http://whirledview.typepad.com/), provided an invited commentary on the debate to Physics Today’s Campaign 2008 blog (http://blogs.physicstoday.org/politics08/2008/09/presidential_debate.html).

In her review she noted that in answer to the moderator’s second question, “Obama listed four priority areas: energy independence, health care, education, and infrastructure. All involve S&T (Science and Technology),” she noted.

McCain’s reference to science during the debate arose in the context of energy policy, particularly offshore drilling and nuclear power.

As he has said elsewhere, McCain called on the creation of 700,000 jobs by building 45 new nuclear plants by 2030.

Ron Dolin, a homeland security expert at the lab and chairman of the Los Alamos County Republican Party, made two other energy related distinctions between the candidates.

He pointed to McCain’s interest in developing “clean coal” technology and underlined his position in support of the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste repository for spent rods from nuclear power plants.

While Obama has also voiced support for clean coal in a long list of technological responses to the problem of climate change, his emphasis has been stronger on renewable sources of clean energy.

He has called the Yucca Mountain effort “an expensive failure that should be abandoned.”

That statement appeared in Nature magazine, the British science journal, which has been running its own ongoing comparison of the two candidates on science issues (http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080903/ful/455446a.html).

Only Obama provided written answers for Nature’s comparisons, but the magazine drew on other statements by McCain and his representatives to provide balance.

One of the questions asked by Nature had a direct bearing on Los Alamos – “Does America need a new generation of nuclear weapons? If not, what is the purpose of the nuclear-weapons complex?”

Obama’s answer cited his work in the Senate in the area of non-proliferation and the country’s existing commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to ultimately eliminate all nuclear weapons.

“I will not authorize the development of new nuclear weapons,” he wrote.

For McCain’s perspective, the comparison quoted his foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, who said any new weapons would have to meet key criteria, including “deterrence, arsenal reduction and improved global nuclear security,” which are arguably the criteria for the new weapons currently under consideration.

Both candidates are on record as supporting a wider range of national security missions at the laboratories, including “ways to achieve energy independence” (McCain), and “the science and technology missions most critical to our country in the twenty-first century” (Obama).