The Sciences

Obama's science policy

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitSep 8, 2008 1:31 PM


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Science runs your life. Have no doubts about this at all. It is in everything you do, everything you are. How we deal with science, engineering, and innovation affects the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat, the medicine you take, the lifespan you statistically enjoy, the computer you are sitting at, and the prosperity -- or lack thereof -- of the country you call home. Right now, science in the US is under the heaviest attack it's suffered since Galileo's time, and for too long the citizens of this country have acquiesced. In November, we can do something about it. Both Senators Obama and McCain have made cursory statements about various aspects of science, but that's not enough. Science is critical, absolutely critical, to the health of the US, so we need better and more in-depth answers. To get them, a group of six citizens created Science Debate 2008 to "... restore science and innovation to America’s political dialogue." They asked each candidate a series of science questions. As of this moment, Obama is the only one who has answered, though McCain says he will. Obama's answers to these questions are, to me, very heartening. He has been accused of giving no specifics when answering questions, but that is misleading at best (the noise machine is very good at making noise). In these answers he does indeed give many specifics, and to my eye is taking the right road to scientific progress and innovation in this country. I won't detail all his answers, but I do want to point out some specific things he wrote. On science innovation:

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.

The number of young scientists in America is in decline, so this is a good idea. I suspect McCain's campaign would do the same thing. On climate change:

There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively. First, the U.S. must get off the sidelines and take long-overdue action here at home 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 by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

I love that first statement. Imagine, a leader who actually has a grasp of reality! I very eagerly await John McCain's statement on this topic. It's not hard to see that working on this issue will lead to engineering breakthroughs (or even incremental steps) that will generate tons of money for large and small businesses. That's a good thing, and something we should have been pursuing for decades. On energy:

This research will cover... A new generation of nuclear electric technologies that address cost, safety, waste disposal, and proliferation risks.

Stereotypically, it's been liberals opposed to nuclear power, and conservatives who are for it. However, I find this statement by Obama to be very encouraging. I am all for better nuclear tech, as we all but abandoned this energy production method decades ago, and we desperately need it. The engineering exists to make it clean, safe, and efficient. I'd very much like to see us increasing our use of this technology. On science education:

I recently introduced the "Enhancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education Act of 2008" that would establish a STEM Education Committee within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to coordinate the efforts of federal agencies engaged in STEM education, consolidate the STEM education initiatives that exist within the Department of Education under the direction of an Office of STEM Education, and create a State Consortium for STEM Education. ... I also recently sponsored an amendment, which became law, to the America Competes Act that established a competitive state grant program to support summer learning opportunities with curricula that emphasize mathematics and problem solving.

I'd love to see a multi-departmental multi-agency (Dept. of Education, Dept. of Energy, NASA) collaboration on STEM education. Fermi (what used to be GLAST) is a collaborative effort of the Department of Energy and NASA, and while developing educational materials for it was difficult due to the bureaucracy, there is a lot of money for education in various governmental sectors. We need to take advantage of that, so we don't waste money developing the same things repeatedly while also being able to pool intellectual resources. On stem cells:

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 administration’s 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.

Awesome. And this:

I am also aware that there 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.

Also awesome. this is something the Bush Administration has been lying about since practically Day One. Stem cells may lead a revolution in medicine, or they may just be a helpful line of inquiry, but either way we won't know until the draconian and illogical rules prohibiting their use are lifted. On space:I've reported on this before, but I do want to point this part out again:

Between 1958 and 1973, the National Aeronautics and Space Council oversaw the entire space arena for four presidents; the 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.

The NASC would be another step in the process to make sure we are making the right moves about space exploration. This is an advisory council, so it has no legal impact, but it sounds to me like Obama does tend to actually listen to expert advice (perhaps he understands the definition of "elite"). If that is indeed the case, then reinstating the NASC is an excellent idea. And finally, On freedom of scientific research: I put this last, but perhaps I should put it first. Squashing actual scientific freedom and burying, distorting, and outright lying about scientific results that go counter to ideology may very well be one of the major ways the Bush Administration will be remembered. What does Obama say on this?

Scientific and technological information is of growing importance to a range of issues. 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 appointees.

Senator McCain? The ball is in your court.

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