Science and Technology in the 2008 Presidential Election
January 9, 2008 3:00 PM   Subscribe

Dr. President: "The next president of the United States of America will control a $150 billion annual research budget, 200,000 scientists, and 38 major research institutions and all their related labs. This president will shape human endeavors in space, bioethics debates, and the energy landscape of the 21st century." With the coming election, the AAAS has created a new website and devoted a section of their journal Science to the Democratic and Republican candidates' positions on science and technology issues. But to help further clarify their positions, some people are calling for the candidates to have a presidential debate on science and technology. [Via The Intersection and Wired Science.]
posted by homunculus (47 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

Well at least this time I think they can all pronounce 'nuclear.'

Personally I'd like to see a battery of intelligence and achievement tests performed on all the candidates. After the last debacle, I'm surprised this requirement hasn't been written into the Constitution.
posted by mullingitover at 3:06 PM on January 9, 2008

No Candidate Left Behind: We're going to set high standards, and then we're going to measure to determine whether or not those standards are being met. It's really important to measure.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:10 PM on January 9, 2008 [6 favorites]

My Science-reading scientist wife will enjoy this. We were just talking last night about how we'll actually have to start researching the candidates now that the nominations don't appear to be solidified after the early primaries.
posted by slogger at 3:16 PM on January 9, 2008

Given the obsessions and the predominant themes of the "debates" thus far, I wouldn't hold my breath for any debate on science and technology.
posted by blucevalo at 3:21 PM on January 9, 2008

Mr Obama, I appreciate your rebuttal to Ms. Clinton's accusation that you would, as president, pander to giraffes and other Kenyan wildlife because of your heritage, and I understand that you'd like more time for a response to Mr. Huckabee's claim that Chuck Norris will kick the ass of anybody who claims that science shouldn't be left for the family alone, but I have a specific question for you. Where do you stand on the issue of edible googly eyes?
posted by koeselitz at 3:21 PM on January 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


With the politico recently busting national athletes for human growth hormone (and other drug) use, I wonder how many of the candidates would be willing to swear (or affirm) that they weren't using? Children's role models that they are and all.
posted by acro at 3:23 PM on January 9, 2008

which candidate do you suspect of steroid use?
posted by desjardins at 3:28 PM on January 9, 2008

Senator, I served with SCIENCE: I knew SCIENCE; SCIENCE was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no SCIENTIST.

posted by blue_beetle at 3:30 PM on January 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is why the details of what grants get funded is shopped out to NIH, NSF, etc who engage in peer review of the applicants. The actual progress of science is rarely touched by government officials. There are some exceptions, like the stem cell debacle, but those are rare. The major examples above are the executive telling other officials (like the SG, CDC director, etc) what to say to congress.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:32 PM on January 9, 2008

I'd be happy if we could get all the candidates to be contestants on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? I suspect that at least some of them are not.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:33 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

"I can't believe I didn't win the nomination. I was QUOTING SCIENCE."
posted by never used baby shoes at 3:37 PM on January 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Steroids? Well, clearly not Dennis Kucinich. After that, I'm not sure.
posted by etaoin at 3:40 PM on January 9, 2008

posted by CautionToTheWind at 3:41 PM on January 9, 2008

Two more big exceptions came to mind. First, playing with the structure of a funding structure (which is a legislative act). Creating NHGRI was a big deal for the human genome project happening, obviously. Second, there's the sweet sweet nectar of DoD funds. The executive arbitrarily and pointlessly gets to direct things there.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:47 PM on January 9, 2008

This is why the details of what grants get funded is shopped out to NIH, NSF, etc who engage in peer review of the applicants.

That oversimplifies it too much. At the lowest level, peer review decides how the grants go around but there are political decisions at higher levels. And even if you handed total control over our nation's science budget to panels of distinguished scientists, politicians will still need to know how to evaluate the results.

Furthermore, there's much more to government science policy than which grants get funded. I have far less concern about that, and far more about a president being able to interpret scientific results and conclusions when making other sorts of policy decisions, the sort that affect climate change, the sorts of weapons we build, the sorts of energy we use, and so on.
posted by grouse at 3:48 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

All I'd want to hear is a number. How much money will you set aside?

A debate about much else (stem-cell debate aside) would be little more than window dressing for the public.
posted by kisch mokusch at 3:50 PM on January 9, 2008

For that matter, I'd think a president with good scientific thinking skills would make better policy decisions in matters wholly unrelated to science. I worry about the thought processes of someone who abandons science arbitrarily when it conflicts with ideology.
posted by grouse at 3:52 PM on January 9, 2008 [4 favorites]

Jesus Christ! I'm all for a presidential scientific debate but you just linked to an mail/email-required petition form powered by the proprietors of 'Powermail Bulk Email.' Get ready for the 'spam.'
posted by datacenter refugee at 3:56 PM on January 9, 2008

At the lowest level, peer review decides how the grants go around but there are political decisions at higher levels.

Most of the climate science and damn near all the evolutionary science that gets funded is through national grants. If they're trying to push around the outcome, they're doing a pretty poor job. There are some decisions made high up, but little which uses understanding of actual science AFAIK.

politicians will still need to know how to evaluate the results

That's kind of true. While it would be entertaining to put our candidates through a comprehension and methodology exam on TV, I doubt that any of them would consent to it. Other than that, they could well be talking mannequins for all we know. For that matter the American people have no idea how to interpret or evaluate anything, so how can they meaningfully evaluate someone else's evaluation? I've kind of given up on expecting any thinking out of pols, expect perhaps the short-sighted survival kind. I think a big part of why any official-driven science policy is a failure (and is doomed to failure) is that the public has no ability to know when they're getting it wrong.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:10 PM on January 9, 2008

I imagine Huckabee's argument would be something along the lines of: God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

The part that bothers me is that's probably good enough to win.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 4:17 PM on January 9, 2008

To quote Dana Carvey as George H. W. Bush:

"Naa gaan happun...wuddn be prudent at this JUNCTURE...stay the course."
posted by briank at 4:17 PM on January 9, 2008

Most of the climate science and damn near all the evolutionary science that gets funded is through national grants. If they're trying to push around the outcome, they're doing a pretty poor job. There are some decisions made high up, but little which uses understanding of actual science AFAIK.

Even at the highest level, I would hope deciding how much money the National Center for Complementary and Applied Medicine gets versus the National Cancer Institute would be colored by an understanding of science. It's probably colored more by political reasons, but that's exactly the point.
posted by grouse at 4:30 PM on January 9, 2008

Funding trends are aligned to whatever the agencies promise to politicians. So this year, send a nanotechnology grant to the NSF, or tinge your proposal with nanotech, and you'll get a bump. This is what people at the NSF tell you, but using different words that won't get them fired while still helping them deliver on their promises to the politicians, and help investigators survive who are smart enough to talk to their NSF contacts.

When funding is as tight as it has been in recent years, with acceptance rates plummeting through the floor, fewer grants for individual labs making the cut, hopping on board to such a politically motivated trend will make the difference for survival. This is doubly so for young investigators, who absolutely must make the most of their first seven years, and who haven't had decades to establish a record of success. And if they don't get those grants in the first seven years, they don't get tenure and are shunted out of the system. And given the glut of young investigators, due to lots of funding for "training" and not keeping up with grants for those trained scientists, such trends will shape coming research for a generation.
posted by Llama-Lime at 4:56 PM on January 9, 2008

Mr Steve Elvis America for veep
posted by whir at 5:06 PM on January 9, 2008

whir is right on target. As a scientist in the middle of my post-doctoral work, watching the flat-funding of the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute has been entirely demoralizing. The funding line for many grants hovers close to 10%, meaning that 90% of the grant proposals are simply not funded. While this does a fine job of weeding out the crappy science, the scarce dollars mean that people with novel work that doesn't fit the dominant paradigm may not get a chance to do their experiments. Because people write grants geared towards what they think the study sections (groups that review grants) want to hear, there is something of a regression towards the mean in terms of ideas.

Given that we're in a $9 trillion hole, mortgaged to the hilt to China, and watching Medicare and Social Security teeter on the brink of insolvency, I don't hold out a lot of hope for a 1990s style doubling of the NIH budget anytime soon no matter who gets elected. The American public (and by virtue, their duly elected government) is simply too scientifically illiterate, too selfish, and too short-sighted to be willing to invest in science during these fiscally uncertain times. Frankly, I don't see federal funding for science improving anytime in coming decade or so (with the exception of the absurdly robust funding for bioterrorism-related research).

It was for this (amongst other reasons) that I've recently decide to leave academic science and medicine in pursuit of something different (cancer drug discovery at a large pharmaceutical research institute). The idea of being a 45 year-old post-doc with no retirement savings, a shitload of student loans, and no clue as to whether he'll be able to get a tenure-track position let alone have a 401K or a hope of saving money for his kid's education, was not particularly appealing.

It sickens me to have to face the fact that the Republicans, our troglodyte president (no offense intended to the genuine Pan troglodytes), and their 7+ years of anti-science policies were able to make things bad enough for me to have to sacrifice my ideals about working in public/not-for-profit science.
posted by scblackman at 5:23 PM on January 9, 2008 [7 favorites]

posted by acro at 5:34 PM on January 9, 2008

If pandering to geeks could win them a substantial voting bloc, they'd already be doing it.

Just sayin'.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:24 PM on January 9, 2008

I think you probably meant that Llama-Lime was right on target, not me, scblackman. But on a more serious note, I wonder if, as a former academic researcher, you see any culpability on the part of the academy in not educating the public to the importance of science funding. (I'm not saying that there necessarily is any, I'm just an interested layperson.) I certainly think that the current administration has been all kinds of disgraceful in its science policy, but there also seems to be little outcry from the public at large on these matters, and I wonder if the academy itself should (or can) play a role in trying to provoke one.

More generally I think I'm interested in what the proper science policy should look like. I think we can take as a given that politicians themselves won't necessarily be scientific experts, or even all that interested in science. And yet there should be some form of oversight over the expenditures, given that it's the largess of the federal government. What do you think is the proper balance? Things must have been better under Clinton, but was that just because there was more funding available, or were the science policies better?

they could well be talking mannequins for all we know

Obviously the scientific thing to do would be to cut all of the candidates open to see if they are, in fact, made of meat.
posted by whir at 6:27 PM on January 9, 2008

Wasn't it Romney who responded to the evolution question in a republican debate with something like "Presidents aren't writing 5th grade textbooks"?

All I could think was "Yes, but we'd like a president who was at least as conversant with the modern world as a 5th grader."
posted by lumpenprole at 6:47 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

John McCain. When scientists say climate change is an urgent problem, the senator from Arizona listens to them... He was an architect of the recently-passed energy bill.

John McCain must be listening to the wrong scientists.
posted by Kwantsar at 6:50 PM on January 9, 2008

I'm sure that you're aware that a big problem with the funding now is exactly that there WAS a quick doubling of NIH funds. All those new grants supported a glut of marginal faculty and thier grad students. Then when the exponential growth died (as it had to) there's little money for the newly minted junior faculty. It remains much easier to renew than to begin fresh, and if you have a few other R01s or a program project grant you can generate the pilot data that you need to get new R01s approved, so in a tough climate the new, larger crop of experienced PIs will choke out the new junior faculty. There's new-investigator status at study section, but it's still pretty damn hard.

I don't blame Bush too much; exponential funding growth had to come to an end at some point. It would have been nice if it was planned so that NIH could have started taking a lifecycle view of things. It's not like private industry has perfect planning either. I'm told that they've kind of crapped on the pipeline lately. Personally, I'm hoping to nurse a K08 and see if things get better. It would kind of suck if the current generation of PIs makes entry into the field that much more difficult by strangleholding funding. As the 2000 generation of renewable/spin off R01s dies there should be more money for everyone else.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:24 PM on January 9, 2008

lumpenprole: "Wasn't it Romney who responded to the evolution question in a republican debate with something like "Presidents aren't writing 5th grade textbooks"?

All I could think was "Yes, but we'd like a president who was at least as conversant with the modern world as a 5th grader."
"When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost... All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."
- H.L. Mencken (1920)
I don't mean to flamebait or insult all Americans, but from over here it doesn't really look as if any of your candidates is really an intelligent, honest, and diplomatically skilled person that looks out for the best interest of the country he or she represents. They all pander to their various voter groups and play everything out on an extremely personal level. And - again, at least form over here - it looks like it will play out like in your last two elections: most people will vote for the candidate they'd like to have a beer with, no one will consider the party connections (look what the Republicans did to you! Punish them for that! And the Democrats that sit around idling are no better - punish them for that!). Cleaning up your act and showing that you disagree strongly with the politics that are currently being inflicted on you and the rest of the world by your elected representatives would be a very, very good place to start...
posted by PontifexPrimus at 2:20 AM on January 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

The Union of Concerned Scientists
posted by your mom at 4:07 AM on January 10, 2008

Point taken, PontifexPrimus, but is it really any better in Germany?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:45 AM on January 10, 2008

ZenMasterThis: "Point taken, PontifexPrimus, but is it really any better in Germany?"

I'd tentatively say so, for two main reasons:

1. We have a broader spectrum of political parties, which makes identifying with them easier, since there are presumably fewer compromises one has to make. Every party issues a official "Parteiprogramm" that describes the party's stance on specific issues, and there is quite a range of different approaches covered, even if you only consider "serious" contenders and leave small or local parties out of it. In America, the image is that both parties seem to focus on the negative, "don't vote for them"; if there were some alternatives available, a bright voter might ask "so, if I should not vote for them, why should I then vote for you, and not for party XYZ?". Also, people tend to identify with their parties less than in the USA: while some might vote out out of habit or tradition for the same party, there is often a huge fluctuation in votes due to unpopular measures or decisions. It is not considered unusual to change party affiliation, especially since you don't have to register it anywhere before you vote.

2. There is less of a cult of personality. Yes, there are career politicians and yes, some faces are far more noticeable than others, but most of the politicians just represent their party. This means that they may have their own opinion on specific issues but will generally follow the directions and ideas of their party and rarely push their own agenda. Plus, there is often a clear separation between private life and political life: attacks on someones private background are, as far as I can tell, virtually unknown, and especially religious convictions are something that's not considered important.

While these are, of course, broad generalizations which may have exceptions, this seems to be the general mindset. I'd also like to add that there is quite a lot of political education done by the schools; an introduction into, for instance, the German voting system and the importance of frei, gleich, geheim, allgemein und unmittelbar (free = every citizen may vote if he or she desires, equal = every vote counts the same, secret = no voter may be linked to his or her vote, common = every citizen is entitled to a vote without having to sign up, direct = the vote counts directly, not via an electoral college), history of the different parties, comparisons with other systems etc.
I'm not saying what we have is perfect, but it seems to come closer to a representation of the nation's will in many respects than, say, the American approach.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 8:17 AM on January 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks for sharing these articles. I've read plenty about the candidates beliefs on issues ranging from immigration to terrorism, but this is the first article I've seen that directly addresses the science and environmental issues. Very informative.
posted by geeky at 9:05 AM on January 10, 2008

The Call for A Science Debate
posted by homunculus at 11:13 AM on January 12, 2008

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