Obama takes a science test

The folks at ScienceDebate2008 pushed hard during the primaries to have the candidates address science policy. Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum from Scienceblogs The Intersection were among the leaders in this movement. They didn't succeed in getting a debate then, but now with the field down to the finalists, they have received a response from Barack Obama to 14 questions culled from over 3400 submitted by the 38,000 signers of the ScienceDebate initiative (we were proud to be among them; they include nearly every major American science organization, the presidents of nearly every major American university, and dozens of Nobel laureates and top American CEOs). The questions are the product of a broad base of America's scientists across the entire political spectrum, among them Scientists and Engineers for America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Academies and the Council on Competitiveness, among others.

McCain has yet to respond. Here are a few of Obama's detailed answers to questions of special interest here (you can find answers to all 14 at sciencedebate2008.com):

6. Pandemics and Biosecurity. Some estimates suggest that if H5N1 Avian Flu becomes a pandemic it could kill more than 300 million people. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from global pandemics or deliberate biological attacks?

It's time for a comprehensive effort to tackle bio-terror. We know that the successful deployment of a biological weapon--whether it is sprayed into our cities or spread through our food supply--could kill tens of thousands of Americans and deal a crushing blow to our economy.

Overseas, I will launch a Shared Security Partnership that invests $5 billion over 3 years to forge an international intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure to take down terrorist networks. I will also strengthen U.S. intelligence collection overseas to identify and interdict would-be bioterrorists before they strike and expand the U.S. government's bioforensics program for tracking the source of any biological weapon. I will work with the international community to make any use of disease as a weapon declared a crime against humanity.

And to ensure our country is prepared should such an event occur, we must provide our public health system across the country with the surge capacity to confront a crisis and improve our ability to cope with infectious diseases. I will invest in new vaccines and technology to detect attacks and to trace them to their origin, so that we can react in a timely fashion. I have pledged to invest $10 billion per year over the next 5 years in electronic health information systems to not only improve routine health care, but also ensure that these systems will give health officials the crucial information they need to deploy resources and save lives in an emergency. I will help hospitals form collaborative networks to deal with sudden surges in patients and will ensure that the U.S. has adequate supplies of medicines, vaccines, and diagnostic tests and can get these vital products into the hands of those who need them.

We also have to expand local and state programs to ensure that they have the resources to respond to these disasters. I will work to strengthen the federal government's partnership with local and state governments on these issues by improving the mechanisms for clear communication, eliminating redundant programs, and building on the key strengths possessed by each level of government. I introduced legislation which would have provided funding for programs in order to enhance emergency care systems throughout the country.

I will build on America's unparalleled talent and advantage in STEM fields and the powerful insights into biological systems that are emerging to create new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tests and to manufacture these vital products much more quickly and efficiently than is now possible. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has failed to take full advantage of the Bioshield initiative. Because of the unpredictability of the mode of biological attack, I will stress the need for broad-gauged vaccines and drugs and for more agile and responsive drug development and production systems. This effort will strengthen the U.S. biotech and pharmaceutical industry and create high-wage jobs.

[Our comment: Not horrible but not that great either. Obama gives too much credence to the scary terrorist scenario and not enough to Nature's terrorism. He mentions strengthening the public health system but only in passing. I'd give this response a grade of B minus to C plus.]

12. Scientific Integrity. Many government scientists report political interference in their job. 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?

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. More broadly, I am committed to creating a transparent and connected democracy, using cutting-edge technologies to provide a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America's citizens. Policies must be determined using a process that builds on the long tradition of open debate that has characterized progress in science, including review by individuals who might bring new information or contrasting views. I have already established an impressive team of science advisors, including several Nobel Laureates, who are helping me to shape a robust science agenda for my administration.

In addition I will:

  • Appoint individuals with strong science and technology backgrounds and unquestioned reputations for integrity and objectivity to the growing number of senior management positions where decisions must incorporate science and technology advice. These positions will be filled promptly with ethical, highly qualified individuals on a non-partisan basis;
  • Establish the nation's first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will lead an interagency effort on best-in-class technologies, sharing of best practices, and safeguarding of our networks;
  • Strengthen the role of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) by appointing experts who are charged to provide independent advice on critical issues of science and technology. The PCAST will once again be advisory to the president; and
  • Restore the science integrity of government and restore transparency of decision- making by issuing an Executive Order establishing clear guidelines for the review and release of government publications, guaranteeing that results are released in a timely manner and not distorted by the ideological biases of political appointees. I will strengthen protection for "whistle blowers" who report abuses of these processes.

[Our comment: The right ideas. A lot will depend upon how tightly his administration would control and manage information. His campaign has been impressively disciplined, which is great for political campaigns but might not be so good for science policy. We'll have to see (and I hope we get a chance to see, as I intend to vote for Obama. This doesn't mean I agree with many of his ideas, many of which I consider to be right of center. This man is no liberal. Consider the alternative. Four more years of the last eight years. This gets a grade of B plus, mainly because with Bush/McCain in the class I'm grading on the curve.]

13. Research. For many years, Congress has recognized the importance of science and engineering research to realizing our national goals. Given that the next Congress will likely face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in basic research in upcoming budgets?

Federally supported basic research, aimed at understanding many features of nature-- from the size of the universe to subatomic particles, from the chemical reactions that support a living cell to interactions that sustain ecosystems--has been an essential feature of American life for over fifty years. While the outcomes of specific projects are never predictable, basic research has been a reliable source of new knowledge that has fueled important developments in fields ranging from telecommunications to medicine, yielding remarkable rates of economic return and ensuring American leadership in industry, military power, and higher education. I believe that continued investment in fundamental research is essential for ensuring healthier lives, better sources of energy, superior military capacity, and high-wage jobs for our nation's future.

Yet, today, we are clearly under-investing in research across the spectrum of scientific and engineering disciplines. Federal support for the physical sciences and engineering has been declining as a fraction of GDP for decades, and, after a period of growth of the life sciences, the NIH budget has been steadily losing buying power for the past six years. As a result, our science agencies are often able to support no more than one in ten proposals that they receive, arresting the careers of our young scientists and blocking our ability to pursue many remarkable recent advances. Furthermore, in this environment, scientists are less likely to pursue the risky research that may lead to the most important breakthroughs. Finally, we are reducing support for science at a time when many other nations are increasing it, a situation that already threatens our leadership in many critical areas of science.

This situation is unacceptable. As president, I 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.

Sustained and predictable increases in research funding will allow the United States to accomplish a great deal. First, we can expand the frontiers of human knowledge. Second, we can provide greater support for high-risk, high-return research and for young scientists at the beginning of their careers. Third, we can harness science and technology to address the "grand challenges" of the 21st century: energy, health, food and water, national security, information technology, and manufacturing capacity.

[Our comment: I've spent my career in basic research so naturally I think this says it just right. I won't profit from it professionally because I am too senior (in every sense of the word), but it is what needs to be done. I expect to be able to profit from it personally in increased quality of life in my old age and a better world for my children and grandchildren. Grade: A.]

14. Health. Americans are increasingly concerned with the cost, quality and availability of health care. How do you see science, research and technology contributing to improved health and quality of life?

Americans have good reasons to be proud of the extraordinary role that medical science has had in combating disease, here and throughout the world, over the past century. Work sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), other government agencies, and our pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries has produced many vaccines, drugs, and hormones that have improved the quality of life, extended life expectancy, and reduced the dire consequences of many serious illnesses and disabilities. These advances include methods for preventing and treating coronary artery disease and stroke, which have reduced mortality rates by two-thirds; new drugs and antibodies that allow us to effectively treat certain cancers; anti-viral agents that allow most patients with AIDS to control their disease; drugs that often help make severe psychiatric illnesses manageable; and new vaccines that are reducing the incidence of virus-related cancers; and minimally invasive surgery techniques that reduce hospitalizations, complications, and costs. We can expect much more from the exciting biomedical research now underway. For example, we can foresee medical care that will allow physicians to tailor care to individual patients, matching therapies to those most likely to benefit.

However, today our citizens have understandable concerns about their ability to afford the care they need, especially when our underlying system of paying for health care is broken. We spend more on health care per capita than people of other countries, yet lower income groups continue to suffer significant disparities in both access to care and health outcomes. Without major changes, costs will continue to increase. Our population is aging, many cancers and chronic disorders remain difficult to treat, and there are continuing threats of new and re-emerging infectious diseases.

It's wrong that America's health care system works better for insurance and drug companies than it does for average Americans, who face skyrocketing health care costs. My plan makes health care more secure and affordable by strengthening employer-based coverage, protecting patients' ability to choose their own doctors, and saving families $2,500 dollars by requiring insurance companies to cover prevention and limiting excessive insurance company charges. My plan covers everybody by requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions, providing tax credits to small businesses and working families, and covering all uninsured children.

These are difficult problems, and science and technology can solve only some of them. The effectiveness of medical care can be improved, and its costs can be reduced, by greater emphasis on best practices, electronic medical records, hospital safety, preventive strategies, and improved public health surveillance. The increased investments I support for medical research at the NIH may yield discoveries that reduce the cost of drug development, and we may produce new methods to prevent diseases that are costly to treat. But efforts to control costs also should make greater use of the tools for prevention and clinical management that already exist; enlist more effective participation of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as the NIH; and encourage investments in healthcare and health research by the private and not-for-profit sectors.

Overall, I am committed to three major tasks that will be necessary to confront widespread concerns about the nation's health: provision of healthcare plans to all of our citizens; comprehensive efforts to make our health care system more cost-efficient; and continued biomedical research to understand diseases more thoroughly and find better ways to prevent and treat them.

[Our comment: Better than nothing (the McCain plan) but not much. Any health care plan that depends on private insurance is doomed. For the same reason, Clinton's plan was marginally better but had the same fatal flaw. This is not bold but weak. Grading on the curve again it gets a grade of C. But in any class with decent students it would flunk.]

Of course I will vote for Obama. What's the alternative? Voting for an anti-choice business as usual military force solves all worse-than-Bush candidate who is a 72 year old cancer survivor with a young running mate who is militantly and aggressively anti-choice, believes it's OK to teach creationism in science class, is the governor of the only state whose wild life includes polar bears but strongly opposes considering their dwindling numbers endangered because it might be bad for oil companies and who favors despoiling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for their profit even though it won't contribute at all to solving the nation's energy woes?

I don't think so.


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This part could have been stronger:

Recent discoveries indicate that adult skin cells can be reprogrammed to behave like stem cells; these are exciting findings that might in the future lead to an alternate source of highly versatile stem cells. However, embryonic stem cells remain the "gold standard," and studies of all types of stem cells should continue in parallel for the foreseeable future.

It's not just that embryonic cells are a "gold standard", it's that we can't make other types work without further work on the embryonic ones.

You'll disagree of course Revere but my read is that the people who ought to be going to college arent because of the costs. Something like 350,000 to get thru to an engineering degree and then there is acceptance. You have to bow and kiss the ring, you have to come up with god awfully high SAT's/ACT's which are basically impossible to achieve for US students because IMO and you can jump if you want, the NEA teachers arent teaching.

Grade school and high school have become a "well he/she" participated operation with no standards. I am glad to say that in our County schools we have 3 schools that were in the top 1000 in the nation and they accounted for millions in scholarships this year. Yep one helluva lot. And why? Its because we have standards. Now just a scant 15 miles away, the dark city creeps lower and lower and we are on our 5 school superintendent in 12 years. Gunfire and gang activity amongst junior high and senior high. Its not a school and you have heard it before in jest... Its a prison. In all actuality they should just lock the doors one day and the crime rate would likely drop 50%. 18 year olds in the 10th grade, 21 year olds in the 12th. What do you think is going to happen?

Barry Obamas statements really carry nothing for me. There are plenty of poor, bootstrapped engineers out there who paid their dues. Got an education, did what was necessary and frankly this one is going to be our undoing. What you are talking about is just another Great Society program that will fail and bankrupt an already bankrupt country. We have seen nothing but increases in costs for both insurance covered people and those that dont have it increase the costs to those who do. Those people above are never going to be taxpayers, they are going to be recipients of tax money. Their numbers are increasing not because of stupidity, but because they are smart. Why should I work? its more cost effective to get onto the welfare system. Employers hire illegals because they cant get people to work at the wages that are offered. Why? Welfare.

One of our churchgoers is on welfare and she got an inheritance. She had to let it go because it would have affected her Social Security as she is well below the retirement age for it. She has set it up so its in escrow and undistributed at the attorneys. When she dies it will be sent to the state and then claimed by the heirs. See, very smart. Gaming the system. 1

The people? They have no dads, we support them from cradle to the grave and they go out and have more cradle to the graves and the blight continues to grow. Australia is having a major problem with this and their UHC/Housing people. You dont have a house, we will give you one. You dont have healthcare? We will provide it for you. When the country goes broke, you wont have shit except for a bag full of complaints and a mass of people who will not be able to tie their shoes without government assistance.....

Even if you are an engineer or scientist.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 31 Aug 2008 #permalink

Revere... I thought you were going to vote for Edwards. Changed your mind?

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 31 Aug 2008 #permalink

Who is running, Kruger? Or did you just wake up from the coma? If so, congrats on your return to the land of the living. :)

Forgive me revere, good response MRK.

Republicans are going to win, Sarah, woman power people.

Lea: Response to what? Randy is agreeing with Obama on college education, although it has nothing to do with anything in the post. So he wasn't responding to anything. Just expressing one of his many opinions. The Edwards quip? Is he writing in Frist's name? While Frist's family tries to make amends for stealing Randy's and your taxes by defrauding the federal gov't? (they got nailed by the Federal False Claims Act, championed by a Republican, Chuck Grassley). Sarah Palin, woman power? LOL. Virulently anti-choice, nasty and catty to other women, anti-environment, lied about her opposition to ear marking, anti-gay, etc., etc. As for drugs, you don't want to know her views, I'm sure. She's a sop to the far right religious base. IMO that's not good for women.

I don't make it personal policy to endorse one candidate over another on any of my blogs. The reason is simple: People must make their own choice and my choice will be biased. I like very much that these questions were asked of the candidates and that you published Sen. Obama's responses. I am a little turned off by your analysis of it and closing remark of not voting for the McCain/Palin ticket. This just sets up your analysis of any McCain response to be biased and questionable regardless of anything you say to the contrary. Very disappointed.

Ren: I've been pretty up front here about how we feel, so for most people who have been coming here for almost 4 years it's no surprise. But in terms of your own practices (different strokes, right?), do you have no preference and if you have one don't yo think it is useful for people to knowwhat they are? Bloggers can disagree about this, of course. I'm surprised you are disappointed that another blogger has made a choice different than yours, though. I am unquestionably biased. I am biased in favor of public health. I could have other b iases (economic develoment, naitonal security, etc.) but I don't. I am telling people my biases. I am not hiding them.

BTW, I am not endorsing Obama. He is far too conservative for me. I am only voting for him, which isn't the same thing. I think my remarks could not reasonably be considered an endorsement of his views.

"new developments in human genetics allow individuals to be informed about their risks of various diseases; such information can be useful for diagnosing and treating disease, but it can also be misused by employers or insurers to discriminate"

Well, yeah. It would be nice to see health insurers discriminate themselves right out of business, to the point that everyone knows that they only give insurance to people who definitely don't need it. After all, insurers make money of uncertainty. No uncertainty, no insurance. Maybe then people will come to understand that putting the care and security of the sick into the hands of money-making entities was always a dumb thing to do.

By Paul Murray (not verified) on 31 Aug 2008 #permalink

Hm. I looked at all fourteen questions, and I am immensely disappointed that he wasn't asked to address the teaching of intelligent design in schools. True, it may not be as sexy as, say, health care or genetics, but I still consider the teaching of evolution important.

afikomen, Obama's Senate site contains the answer to your question. I think his position is pretty clear:

Intelligent design is not science. We should teach our children theology to get them to think about the meaning of life. But that's separate from how atoms or photons work.

Mr Kruger, if any of what you said were true, I'd be living in abject poverty here in Old Europe, in a failed state similar to Somalia. And yet, yours is the country where people go bankrupt when anyone in their family gets ill.

Wake up, smell the coffee, and learn that there are other countries than the USA out there. You don't need to do statistics with a sample size of 1; the sample is much, much greater.

Sad, really. You are displaying egnorance (correct spelling). Please do something against it.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 01 Sep 2008 #permalink

Call me a conservative, but I am all about seasoning more than slathering with a layer of opinion what some may perceive to be information. And what is up with this whole hating on people who believe there is a God? It's almost religious (wink, wink) the way people are attacked if they just happen to believe that there might just be something more to the whole damn thing than sub-atomic particles. Granted, some of those beliefs interfere with scientific discovery, but is it fair then that scientists want to interfere with Faith? Does the shoe really need to be put on the other foot?

Ren: I don't know if you are conservative or not. But I don't think you appreciate how religious this country is and how inhospitable and alienating it is for those of us who don't believe. The purpose of "atheist sites" as you call them is to say, "Yes, it's all right if you don't believe and in fact think religious belief is irrational." Do you object everytime someone makes a religious reference in public? Like, "Let's pray for them. God Bless America? Etc., etc." Or only when atheists proclaim their own opinions? And you just slathered your own opinion in the comments. You apparently censor your opinions in your blog if you don't mention them (you probably assume they don't influence your opinions, a highly doubtful assumption in my view, given what you have said here). What exactly is your point about the post? That praying for profit is good banking? Or that it is unseemly to criticize people who think their investment decisions are informed by a Higher Authority? Or is it that you don't like atheists (that would seem to be the burden of your remark, once analyzed). Tell me where I said we should interfere with faith (small f, in my lexicon). You are welcome to your opinion, as presumably I am entitled to mine. You have a blog and you can use it however you like. As we will do here. This is a blog run by atheists. It deals with atheism once a week. If that means you won't read the other 6 days, that says something about you, not about us.

Isn't it strange, though, that you are convinced of the non-existence of a god based on the lack of evidence, and that people of faith are convinced of the existence of a god also based on the lack of evidence?
I once found myself running on a path by the Potomac, and John Kerry was running towards me. I stopped and said hello. He stopped and shook my hand. I wished him luck with the elections, and he wished me luck on the upcoming marathon I was training for. And that was the perfect metaphor for him and I: two men on the same path, in opposite directions, trying to achieve the same results of getting faster and being healthier.
I believe you and I are in a similar condition here. Alas, we must agree to disagree, and move on in our promotion of public health and evidence-based health interventions with respect and collegiality (if that's even a word, but you know what I mean).
I offer you an olive branch, and let's move on.

Ren: Your olive branch is accepted with pleasure and reciprocated.


Isn't it strange, though, that you are convinced of the non-existence of a god based on the lack of evidence, and that people of faith are convinced of the existence of a god also based on the lack of evidence?

Being convinced of any positive proposition based upon lack of evidence is stupid. To highlight just how inane it is, let me highlight this example: there is no evidence for leprechauns.

In response to the OP, yes, I think these responses to these questions were overall quite excellent. Though it seems to me that he largely missed the point in question 6, and I'm not sure that some of his proposed solutions are in any way viable, I was very happy with nearly all of the rest of his responses. Let's see if he follows through.

As for ID, he's already chimed in on that matter with a rather NOMA response:

I'm a Christian, and I believe in parents being able to provide children with religious instruction without interference from the state. But I also believe our schools are there to teach worldly knowledge and science. I believe in evolution, and I believe there's a difference between science and faith. That doesn't make faith any less important than science. It just means they're two different things. And I think it's a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don't hold up to scientific inquiry.

source: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1999910/posts

By Jason Dick (not verified) on 01 Sep 2008 #permalink