The Sciences

McCain's Science Policy

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitSep 22, 2008 4:48 PM


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ScienceDebate2008 was set up to get the Presidential candidates talking publicly about science. They asked the candidates 14 questions about science policy; last week I analyzed Barack Obama's answers. Now it's time for John MCain's. His full, detailed answers to the 14 questions can be found on the ScienceDebate2008 website. I suggest you read that before continuing on here.

Mind you, what follows are my opinions, based on the answers McCain gave and evidence I have gathered elsewhere. I have based my opinions on the best knowledge I have, and I encourage readers to leave rational, thoughtful comments. On science innovation: His lead-in to this is a little odd; he says he knows about science and tech because he was in the Navy and relied on them, but that's a non sequitur (especially since he's made a point of saying he doesn't even know how to use a computer). I've relied on medical technology in the past, but that makes me neither a doctor nor an expert in that tech. However he does have real background in legislation in this field, so we can chalk up that Navy statement to him just once again dropping his military career into the conversation. For science innovation, McCain gives a list of bulleted item, and they read fairly well (though vague), and in many cases are just like Obama's points. One thing did stand out to me in this section. He said he would:

Appoint a Science and Technology Advisor within the White House to ensure that the role of science and technology in policies is fully recognized and leveraged, that policies will be based upon sound science, and that the scientific integrity of federal research is restored

That sounds good, but that also makes it sound like there isn't one now. There is: John Marburger. Of course, Marburger is routinely ignored by Bush, but the position does exist. On climate change: He says the right things here, too. He acknowledges that global warming exists (hurray!) and that we are at least partly to blame (hurray!) and that we need to lower our impact (hurray!). He even lists some target goals to achieve in the next few decades. For a Republican in power in this country, that is refreshing. However, according to Salon (which admittedly is no friend of the far right), his record on the environment is terrible, and he has made some statements about that record that don't match the facts. That does make me wonder if McCain is actually willing to back up his answers in ScienceDebate with action. History would say otherwise; while Salon may be biased, over the past two years McCain has gone back on many of his stances that angered the far right. On energy: This quotation struck me:

As President, I will put the country on track to building 45 new 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.

I support this quite strongly; nuclear tech has come a long, long way in the past few decades, and can be made safe and clean. We need nuclear power. That is not generally considered a liberal view, but then again I'm a complicated guy. I'll note Obama said he supports the idea of nuclear power as well. However, about solar, wind, and other sources, he said this:

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. In less than a generation, wind power alone could account for a fifth or more of all our electricity. And just in recent memory, solar energy has gone from a novelty to a fast-growing industry. 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, instead of casting one of a hundred votes, I intend to see that objective better served. We 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.

That is, not to be too blunt, a crock. The market has been corrupted in recent years, so much so that our economy is on the verge of collapse. That's what the unregulated free market has done for us. There are times when government regulation and funding are good things. Funding research into cheaper and more efficient tech would be a fine idea; some companies will do this, but enough to actually achieve the goal? It hasn't happened yet, and without the government's support it may not happen. McCain says he wants the market to decide, but he also supports a taxpayer-supported $300 million prize to build a hybrid battery that can be used in a car. Which is it? On science education: His answer on this is pretty vague, saying we need to improve things for students, give them more opportunities, train teachers, and so on:

We must fill the pipeline to our colleges and universities with students prepared for the rigors of advanced engineering, math, science and technology degrees. We must move aggressively to provide opportunities from elementary school on, for students to explore the sciences through laboratory experimentation, science fairs and competitions.

Well, sure. But that's not really an answer to what we will do to improve science education, it's an outline of a solution at best. There's no solid detail to this. And then, in the midst of all that, comes this strange fiat:

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.

Private corporations? What? That's nuts! Again, I point to the way the market has behaved recently. I don't think we should leave something as critical as educating our children in the hands of corporations. That's insanity. He does give some specifics:

I will devote 60 percent of Title II funding 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. [...] I will allocate $250 million through a competitive grant program to 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.

Speaking to the first part of that quotation, organizations already exist to do that, like Teach for America. They get teachers into places where they are needed the most, like rural and inner city locations. Funding them better would be a good start. The second part, grant money to get states online, sounds good. However, $250 million is not a lot of money. Just developing a single online course could cost about a million dollars (I worked on just such a grant a few years ago). With overhead, infrastructure, and other costs, this money won't last long. It's a nice start, but I don't know where McCain's group came up with that number. I'll also add that previous statements of his make me strongly doubt his commitment to education; he recently called planetaria "foolishness". Given that planetaria are where hundreds of thousands of people across the country get their astronomy fix, his calling them foolish is itself foolish. On stem cells: He falls badly here:

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.

"Moral values"? Stem cells come from embryos that will be destroyed anyway. Is he morally against in vitro fertilization, where several embryos can be lost? This is a fundamental (haha) hypocrisy of this stance by the religious right. It's nonsense. And the "fetal farming" line is also pure garbage. There is no such thing as fetal farming. Never has been, either. It's an empty statement that sounds good to the base, but is meaningless. It's like saying you're against evil flying monkeys that live in clouds. Third, adult stem cells do not have anywhere near the same use as embryonic cells. Using only adult cells is like restricting astronomers to only looking at the sky from 3-4 a.m., or telling biologists they can only study invertebrates. It unreasonably limits the research that can be done, and it's based on fallacious moral arguments. On space: Here, McCain hits the right notes. He acknowledges the importance of space exploration, including where it is critical for science, for studying the Earth, and where manned exploration excites and inspires us. I have no issues with anything he says here. Surprise! He also specifically calls for the Shuttle to remain in service until Ares is ready to fly. That, I think, is a thorny issue. I am no fan of the Shuttle: it's expensive, difficult, and dangerous. But it's all we have. Ares wont be ready for manned flights until 2014 at the very earliest, and the Shuttle is due to retire in 2010. Extending the Shuttle four more years -- at the very least -- is asking for trouble, and by trouble I mean at worst losing another orbiter. I would love to be able to simply keep flying the Shuttle until Ares flies, but it's a lot more complicated than that! We don't have an infinite number of engineers, launch facilities, and resources. Simply stating that we'll extend the Shuttle program means spending a lot more money. A lot. To me, this sounds like a statement from McCain that is supposed to sound nice, but wasn't thought through terribly well. On freedom of scientific research: McCain hits the right notes here as well:

Many times our research results have identified critical problems for our country. Denial of the facts will not solve any of these problems. Solutions can only come about as a result of a complete understanding of the problem. I believe policy should be based upon sound science. Good policy development will make for good politics. I support having a science and technology advisor within the White House staff and restoring the credibility and role of OSTP as an office within the White House structure. I will work to fill early in my Administration both the position of Science Adviser and at least four assistant directors within OSTP. I am committed to asking the most qualified scientists and engineers to join not only my OSTP, but all of the key technical positions in my Administration.

"Restoring the credibility" is a key phrase; science counsel in the Bush White House is a joke... or it would be, if it weren't so tragic. I would be very happy indeed to see that role solidified and increased. Conclusions McCain does get some things right, or mostly so, including what he says about space, nuclear energy, and climate change. He is grossly wrong on others, like stem cell research and some odd ideas about corporate involvement in science. In many cases, comparing the two candidates, I think that McCain and Obama say pretty much the same thing. It's hard to say if this is honesty from them, or whether we should chalk it up to pre-election empty promises. Both say some good things about science policy, but in the end I have to give Obama the ribbon. His comments overall tend to be more detailed and provide more information on what he will actually do. McCain's biggest failing here -- and it is indeed big -- is letting far-right ideology ooze in, like letting corporations get their hands on our kids in the classroom, and all the utter nonsense he spouted about stem cell research. I am not so foolish as to think that either Obama's or McCain's remarks in this debate will sway very many voters. Plus, they do tend to fall along party lines. And again, we're in the pre-election campaign season, where the promises of a politician are as ethereal and thin as the dust between stars. But enough of that dust dims our view of the distance. I hope that whoever wins the White House sticks to their claims made in ScienceDebate2008. At the very least we should take note of their answers, and make sure that they hear about it if they don't.

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