The debate that never happened, but should have: Science Debate 2008

Posted on September 27, 2008


Back in February, Andrew Revkin, climate and environment reporter for the New York Times (and fellow SEJ member) wrote in his DotEarth blog that there were a number of people and organizations hoping to have the Presidential candidates debate on various science topics. The group most directly involve in trying to organize this debate was Science Debate 2008, and while they were unable to get Barack Obama and John McCain to agree to a science debate, they were able to get a list of 14 questions submitted to the campaigns, and responses to those questions back.

The 14 questions were, with the help of several science organizations, culled from 3400 questions submitted by scientists and engineers representing nearly every American science organization, Nobel laureates, and over 100 universities. I’ve excerpted the questions and answers below in an attempt to understand and explain why the questions, and the candidates answers to each, matter. If you want to read the complete questionnaire and the actual answers to each instead of my summaries, check out this link.


Question 1: What policies will you support to ensure that America remains the world leader in innovation?

Obama believes that our place as the world leader in innovation is threatened because of a lack of federal investment and insufficient interest by young people in the science and engineering fields. His response is to fund high risk/high payoff research, more grants for new scientists, more emphasis on quality teaching of both mathematics and science, and more grants and fellowships for science and engineering students in college.

McCain believes that his experience on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation makes him uniquely qualified to address the problem of innovation, and that lower taxes and deregulation will make companies more innovative. His specific recommendations are to appoint a science and technology adviser, improve government management and promote fiscal responsibility within the government’s science and technology departments, reallocate wasted earmark money to science and technology, reform science and math education, and develop the federal agenda with the aid of business and academic leaders.

Question 2: What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change—a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research? Are there other policies you would support?

McCain believes that global heating is real and must be addressed. He wants to institute a cap-and-trade system that incentivizes emissions reductions for companies and that returns to 2005 carbon dioxide (CO2) levels by 2012, 1990 levels by 2020, and 60% below 1990 levels by 2050. He wants to increase CAFE standards and make the financial penalties for not meeting them stronger. McCain wants to spend $2 billion per year on “clean coal” technology development, $5,000 in tax credits for every family that buys a zero-emission vehicle, and a $300 million prize for a radically more advanced battery technology.

Obama also believes that global heating must be addressed, although his ultimate cap-and-trade CO2 emissions target is 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 and to 1990 levels by 2020, although he wants to auction all cap-and-trade permits. Obama also says that he’ll not only work with the UN and the G8+5 energy consuming/CO2 emitting nations to create a global energy forum, and he says he’ll develop a mechanism to export clean coal, advanced automobile, and green building technologies to the developing world.

Ed. Note: The IPCC estimates that, in order to achieve a stabilization target of 490 ppm CO2, emissions must peak no later than 2015 and must be 50% or more below 1990 levels by 2050 in order to keep the peak below 450 ppm and global heating below 2 °C. More recent modeling puts the target much lower – total decarbonization (0 tons of emitted CO2) by 2050 at the latest.

Question 3: What policies would you support to meet demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

Obama has proposed $150 billion over 10 years in new research into alternative fuels and chemicals, green buildings, fuel efficiency improvements, energy storage, a smart electricity transmission grid, carbon capture and sequestration, and a new generation of nuclear power plants. He gives specific targets as well: reduce the energy intensity of the economy by 50% by 2030, improve new building efficiency by 50% and old building efficiency by 25%, boost fuel efficiency by 4% per year, institute a renewable electricity standard that requires 10% of the nation’s electricity be produced from renewables by 2012 and 25% by 2025. And Obama says he wants encourage the development of sustainable communities and mass transit nationwide.

McCain wants sustainable energy as a way to improve the environment, the economy, and national security. He wants 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030, but that’s the only specific target McCain gives. Instead, McCain proposes a permanent renewable power tax credit, that government ensure a level playing field for all renewable energy sources, and to make the United States the world leader in innovative green technologies. He believes that research and carbon reductions will spur revolutionary innovations that will, as a result, lower energy costs and boost economic growth.

Question 4: What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century?

McCain believes that a well trained workforce is vital to growing an innovative economy. He also feels that the country needs to do more to retrain workers who find their jobs downsized or outsourced in addition to graduating more students in science and technology fields. Further, McCain believes not only that the U.S. is facing a critical shortage of scientists and engineers, but that we should leverage the creativity of corporations to help us train those new scientists and engineers. He wants to dedicate 35% of Title II funds directly to schools and the principles who know their school’s needs 60% of Title II funds to performance incentives for teachers who teach in difficult schools or who teach difficult subjects such as mathematics and science, and for performance bonuses to teachers who can boost test scores, raise student achievement, or qualify as high performance according to peer evaluations. And he’ll provide $250 million for the development of online learning.

Obama believes that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is a vital tool for all Americans, and so he’ll support cutting edge educational and assessment programs and the creation of several sub-departments and offices dedicated to STEM education. He wants to attract the best educators to education in STEM fields via scholarships, residency programs, and carreer ladders. Obama wants all students to be ready to learn when they enter school by engaging the federal government with community leaders and parents, and he wants to provide $4,000 in the form of a tax credit to every student who wants to go to college.

Question 5: 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 believes that the U.S. is facing a Sputnik moment as it deals with asymmetric warfare, cyber attacks, and biological and nuclear terror. He wants to boost basic defense research in order to deal with the new threats, and he wants to connect the researchers more closely to the soldiers, airmen, seamen, and marines whose lives will rely on the new technologies. Obama believes that the Department of Homeland Security needs better management at all levels, and he considers reduced oil consumption to be a national security issue. Finally, Obama wants to boost domestic manufacturing so that the U.S. doesn’t lose any more of its manufacturing strength.

McCain says that he has been a strong advocate for the military in the past and will continue to be one in the future as well. He wants to ensure that the military has all the tools it needs to deter conflict or, if not successful in deterrence, to win any conflict the military is forced to fight. McCain will also strengthen our alliances and boost homeland security. In order to ensure the nation is protected, McCain will boost military R&D funding.

Question 6: What steps should the United States take to protect our population from global pandemics or deliberate biological attacks?

McCain wants to keep the government focused on preparing for a global pandemic, either from the H5N1 bird flu virus or some other virus. He lays out the steps that the government needs to take in order to limit the spread of a pandemic, with a focus on preparedness, communication, detection, and the actual response. In the event of bioterror attack, however, while all the preparations and steps for a pandemic stilly apply, McCain believes that the best defense is to prevent the attack in the first place, and that means boosted intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities. McCain also feels that there are several key technologies that should be researched, namely fast means of detecting the presence of automated pathogen detectors and new medicines and vaccines.

Obama also believes that intelligence and law enforcement on the international level is vital to protecting our country from bioterror attacks, and he wants bioterror to be declared as a crime against humanity. He will also invest in the development of new broad-based medicines, vaccines, and diagnostic technologies, and he believes that the development of these things will create new high paying jobs. Obama also plans to give hospitals tools with which they can better coordinate their response to a pandemic or bioterror attack collectively. Obama wants to work with state and local governments to streamline the combined federal, state, and local responses with better communcations and fewer expensive, redundant programs.

Question 7: What is the right policy balance between the benefits of genetic advances and their potential risks?

Obama recognizes the importance of genetic research and advances in medicine and food crops, but also recognizes that there are dangers when the risks of those advances are not well understood. He supports the analyses and recommendations of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee and the creation of genetically engineered crops, albeit with stronger regulatory oversight and strict environmental and health testing than has occurred in the past. And Obama believes that genetic testing for disease risk should not be used by insurance companies to discriminate.

McCain also feels that genetic medical information must be protected and kept private. He considers the scientific and ethical concerns surrounding genetics to be complex enough that he will seek out expert advice. McCain also believes that genetic engineering could lead to a new Green Revolution, with special focus on feeding Africa with high-yield crops.

Question 8: What is your position on government regulation and funding of stem cell research?

McCain supports embryonic stem cell research and hopes that adult stem cell research will render moot any need for embryonic stem cells. He opposes “fetal farming” and any creation of embryos for research purposes.

Obama also supports embryonic stem cell research with strong oversight and will reverse the Bush Administration ban on federal money being used for embryonic stem cell research on post-April 9, 2001 stem cell lines. He believes that the hundreds of thousands stored in fertility clinics that will not be used for reproduction should be made available for research, and while he hopes that adult stem cells will continue to show promise, he believes that the promise of adult stem cells should not detract from research on embryonic stem cells, especially when overseen by the National Research Council.

Question 9: What steps, if any, should the United States take during your presidency to protect ocean health?

Obama wants to develop a strong, integrated, and well managed ocean stewardship program with cross-department organization. He believes that addressing climate change via CO2 emission reductions will help protect ocean health. He supports the international Law of the Sea Convention and will work with other countries to protect the health of the ocean. Obama also will work to protect marine sanctuaries and other federal acts that presently protect the ocean.

McCain considers managing the oceans, and by extension the Great Lakes, one of the more complex management tasks of the federal government because of how susceptible the oceans are to effects that originate hundreds or thousands of miles away. He believes that, in order to manage the oceans effectively, the management offices must get buy-in to the changes from lots of different interested parties. McCain supports more research into the carbon cycle and how it applies to the oceans, and he belives that ocean science and engineering in general need more attention. And he belives that he’s best qualified due to his time in the U.S. Navy.

Question 10: What policies would you support to meet demand for water resources?

McCain understand that water is the lifeblood of the country, and especially the West, and he believes that conflicts over water rights are best handled out of the courts. McCain believes that all levels of government need to work together to develop, manage, and use the limited water supplies that the nation has. He believes that the best approach to managing water is within existing agreements and compacts.

Obama believes too that all levels of government need to work together. He feels that water pricing structures need to be updated to promote conservation and efficiency, and that aid may be necessary to get citizens and businesses to transition away from high water usage landscaping and technologies to lower water options. And Obama feels that the research and development of technologies to aid in the reduction of water use should be a federal priority.

Question 11: How would you prioritize space in your administration?

Obama wants NASA to not only run the human and robotic space flight missions, but also to be in the forefront of research addressing climate change, energy independence, and aeronautics research. He’ll reestablish the National Aeronautics and Space Council in order to organize all of the United States’ interests in space – military, intelligence, scientific, civilian, or commercial – and ensure that they are all working in tandem wherever possible.

McCain believes that the U.S. relies more on our space-based assets than ever before, from communications and intelligence satellites to satellite-based weather radar and scientific instruments. He credits the space race as one of the engines of the last forty years of U.S. technological dominance. With a number of other countries competing with the U.S. in space exploration, McCain believes that we need to continue to invest in space not only for the technological advances it will bring us, but also for the national prestige our human spaceflight program accords the U.S. McCain plans to keep the space shuttle program going until Ares/Orion are available, to maintain existing space facilities, and to divert money from other sources to help keep the U.S. space program(s) running.

Question 12: 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 believes that good politics depends on good policy, which in turn depends on sound science. He wants to bring the Office of Science and Technology Policy back into the White House and to hire the most qualified scientists and engineers for all technical positions within the federal government. And McCain believes that integrity, as opposed to denial of facts, is critical to sound science.

Obama wants to return to a government that makes decisions based on the best-available, scientifically-valid evidence instead of on ideology. He believes that open scientific debate is the best way to formulate those decisions. Obama will also appoint people with science and technology backgrounds to those administrative positions that need an understanding of science and technology. He will establish a new Chief Technology Officer for the United States, make the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology advisory to the President, and issue an Executive Order requiring transparency in the release of all government publications.

Question 13: Given that the next Congress will likely face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in basic research in upcoming budgets?

Obama believes that basic and fundamental research into many areas of science is essential to the continued well-being of the United States, and he plans to double basic research funding over the next 10 years. And Obama believes that the basic research will help address the “grand challenges” facing the United States: energy, health, food and water, national security, information technology, and manufacturing.

McCain wants to ensure that basic research is not slighted in a world of constrained spending and also wants to make sure that the highest quality research wins the money. He will continue to support increased funding for the departments and labs that perform basic research, but he wants to be sure that all the research supports the needs of the country.

Question 14: How do you see science, research and technology contributing to improved health and quality of life?

McCain believes that new medical research and technologies will lower the costs of health care, and he believes that developing new treatment models will also help lower health care costs.

Obama believes that we should be proud of the medical advances that our doctors, scientists, and companies have produced, but that we need a health care system that serves everyone and doesn’t cost unreasonable amounts of money like the current system does. He believes that our health care system shouldn’t benefit drug companies and insurers at the cost of the patient, and that efficiency improvements, biomedical research, and some form of universal health care should be the cornerstones of the U.S. health care system.


A brief editorial comment

It’s more than just unfortunate that John McCain and Barak Obama will not be involved in a science debate – it’s tragic. Science and engineering have built the foundation of American progress for decades if not centuries, and yet the public continues to view scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and other similar intellectuals and experts as fundamentally less important than ministers, jocks, celebrities, et al. The fact that this debate did not occur only reinforces this anti-intellectual perception in the public mind. Indeed, if the presidential candidates don’t care enough about science and technology to debate it publicly, why should the public care?

I am hopeful that greater understanding of science and technology, and of the people involved in those endeavors and fields, will become more mainstream in the culture over the next few years. While there was no science debate this election cycle, both candidates still felt obligated to answer these 14 questions, and their answers illustrate that both candidates believe that science and technology development and education are vitally important to America’s future. After eight years of government by ideology and loyalty instead of by science and ability, both McCain and Obama would be necessary breaths of fresh air.

That said, however, I believe that the answers above make it it clear that one of these two candidates would be better than the other. In too many cases, John McCain’s answers will filled with buzzwords (bingo!) instead of clear answers. The financial realities of the next few years will be such that his favored spending reductions will ultimately lead not to stronger scientific research and technology development, but instead to weaker education, less basic research, and less innovation. After all, John McCain who said that basic research should be targeted and who suggested that medical technology would enable reductions in heath care expenses. He apparently failed to realize that basic research is, by definition, not targeted at specific developments – it’s research done for the sake of acquiring a better understanding of reality, and the targeting into specific areas comes later when the engineers get a hold of the research. And McCain also failed to recognize that one of the main reasons that U.S. health care costs so much is the overemphasis on medical technology by our doctors, insurance companies, hospitals, and yes, even the patients.

Finally, a request – send the link to the answers of the 14 Science Debate 2008 questions around to anyone you believe would benefit from knowing these things. Knowing how the candidates view science and technology may be enough to push a voter toward one candidate or the other. And having all the information necessary to make an informed decision about which candidate would make the better President is always a good thing.

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