Obama vs. McCain On Science And Innovation

by tristero

As this NY Times guide makes clear, there are points of agreement between Obama and McCain when it comes to the government's role in science and innovation issues. But the differences are stark and for anyone who cares about America's role in advancing science and technology, the choice is a no brainer. Let me not keep you in suspense. Obama's positions are far superior to his opponent's.

In the area of "research spending" for example, McCain is full of stunts. One of them is just plain stupid political nonsense: McCain would "freeze research spending for at least a year." Now, this "idea" is not something reasonable people discuss. No. Reasonable people laugh uproariously and change the subject. Why? Because if you discuss this crackpot notion and earnestly try to debunk it, you fall into the exact same trap that was set by the proposal to invade Iraq. You elevate its status and make it appear plausible when it is simply as batshit crazy as proposing a space mission to rendezvous with the alien spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.

Slightly less screwy is McCain's proposal for a $300 million prize for battery technology innovation. Sure, why not? I suppose it can't hurt and the publicity stunt will focus the public's attention on an important issue in the development of the electric car and other new gadgets. But that is essentially all it is: A publicity stunt.

Finally, McCain resorts to those cure-all tonics Republicans swear by: tax cuts and deregulation. That's not a program that engages the US government in serious research. That's a program that elevates neglect, corruption, and mismanagement to official government policy. With an attitude like that, McCain will create precisely the kind of government he and his party claim to despise.

Obama on the other hand will "double spending on basic research over 10 years." Since there is no hoo-hah from Obama on deregulation, we can assume that he expects to provide appropriate oversight. (Needless to say, those who are close to the specific issues will need to make sure this actually happens.) That is smart. In numerous sciences, from computing to physics to biology, technological advances are proceeding at an accelerated pace. By doubling the money available (and naturally, spending it wisely), Obama will help prevent a brain drain to other countries. This does have the potential to significantly advance America's lead in innovative science and technology.

Obama would go further, creating " a public-private network of business incubators and establish a fund to advance manufacturing technology." These are specific policy proposals, not publicity stunts. Sure, a fund to "advance manufacturing technology" could create a prize for battery innovation, but Obama, quite rightly, doesn't insist upon a mere publicity stunt. Rather he insists upon finding, and funding, programs that have a chance to work.

With Obama, you find a seriousness of purpose in erecting a framework to spend government money responsibly. With McCain, you find gimmicks and total nonsense. If you go through the guide, this pattern repeats itself. Both candidates address stem cell research. Obama, relying upon the authority of the scientists who actually work with stem cells, simply supports "federal financing for research on human embryonic stem cells." This is a support based not on ideology, but knowledge gleaned from experts. McCain, the guide notes, "has supported federal financing for embryonic stem cell research; lately has suggested that other kinds of stem cells may make the use of embryonic cells unncessary." In other words, under pressure from the lunatic right, which puts ideology above competence, McCain is prepared to waste money pursuing esoterica if his rightwing backers think it is politically correct to do so. This is kind of like funding abstinence-only education. Yes, I'm aware that potential alternatives to embryonic stem cells have been developed. But, from what I can tell, they all have problems that embryonic stem cells don't. McCain, in the interest of ideological purity, is prepared, apparently, to bet taxpayer's money merely on the hope that these alternatives may work out rather than follow the advice of experts.

And finally, we get to space exploration. Obama's approach is a conservative response to the conventional wisdom of experts in the field. But note the nod towards a utilitarian purpose for exploring space: it could actually yield some important insights into "addressing global challenges like climate change." McCain wants more star wars coupled with wildly expensive and dangerous flyboy-style publicity stunts that reflect "national power and pride." As for economic development, he is surely joking.

In short, one candidate - Obama - has put forth a proposal for a sensible role for the US government to play in 21st Century scientific innovation. The other - McCain - has proposed, with very few differences, a continuation of George W. Bush's ignorant, ideologically stained strategy. Obama has been serious, McCain frivolous.

While I am no scientist, simply an outside observer with an intense interest in it, I suspect that no rational scientist can, in all seriousness, support McCain's proposals for government's role in science over Obama's.