Obama on Science and Technology

On Saturday, ScienceDebate 2008 and Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA) announced that Barack Obama answered a fourteen-part questionnaire that they put together along with several other scientifically oriented organizations. Major props to ScienceDebate, SEA, and these other organizations for making this happen and to Barack Obama for thoroughly answering these fourteen questions.

I'd encourage you to check out his answers for yourself, at either of the links above. My own analysis is that his answers overall are quite satisfactory. He says all of the right things for the most part, although not always in enough detail to indicate how his ideas would actually come to fruition. (To be fair, he does provide more detail than I would expect from a politician.) Of course, I don't expect him to have all of the answers--especially not this early in the process--so the most important thing he can do is continue to build a body of reliable, outspoken, and diverse scientific advisors that can formulate ambitious but workable plans to tackle the various difficult issues his administration will face--issues that have largely languished under the current administration.

By far the most important science-related issue Obama would face as president is the combined challenge of tackling global warming and securing America's future energy supply. Here, Obama lays out ambitious goals, but it will take a great deal of political will and smart policy to achieve them. Also of great importance is health care. I've written about Obama's health care plan previously on two occasions, and my take-home message there is that his plan is not as ambitious as we need, but it's about as much as we can expect right now, and it appears conservative enough to be implemented more or less intact.

Obama's answer to a question on embryonic stem cell research seems to show a particularly keen understanding of the issues, so I've reproduced it here:

Stem cell research holds the promise of improving our lives in at least three ways--by substituting normal cells for damaged cells to treat diabetes, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury, heart failure and other disorders; by providing scientists with safe and convenient models of disease for drug development; and by helping to understand fundamental aspects of normal development and cell dysfunction.

For these reasons, 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.

I recognize that some people object to government support of research that requires cells to be harvested from human embryos. However, hundreds of thousands of embryos stored in the U.S. in in-vitro fertilization clinics will not be used for reproductive purposes, and will eventually be destroyed. I believe that it is ethical to use these extra embryos for research that could save lives when they are freely donated for that express purpose.

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. 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.

Rather than restrict the funding of such research, I favor responsible oversight of it, in accord with recent reports from the National Research Council. Recommendations from the NRC reports are already being followed by institutions that conduct human embryonic stem cell research with funds from a variety of sources. An expanded, federally-supported stem cell research program will encourage talented U.S. scientists to engage in this important new field, will allow more effective oversight, and will signal to other countries our commitment to compete in this exciting area of medical research.

On the other hand, his answer to a question about genetics research was less than inspiring and seemed overly political and cautious (although he did mention the importance of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which was signed into law earlier this year.)

Another major challenge Obama would face as president is how we as a nation fund basic research. Here's what he has to say about that:

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.

Obama is absolutely correct that we need to increase federal basic research funding. No question. However, more money alone won't solve the problem of plummeting grant success rates. His point about the importance of predictable increases in funding is right on target, but this is an issue that is going to require a truly innovative solution. Instead of focusing on how we're going to support basic research and basic researchers for the next ten years, five years, or--god forbid--one year, we need to be thinking about how we're going to sustain and nurture this enterprise for the next fifty years. The boom-and-bust cycle that the NIH has been exposed to is not conducive to scientific progress, and makes it very difficult for aspiring scientists to establish themselves and continue funding their labs once they are established. Young investigator awards are very helpful, but we must also make sure that we don't leave scientists stranded mid-career. I don't have all of the answers here, and I certainly don't expect for Barack Obama to either. However, if he's really serious about bolstering basic science in the US, as president he needs to have a team of experts dedicated to addressing this problem alone.

Overall, I think that there's a lot to be optimistic about in Obama's answers to this survey. Despite the lack of details in some areas, it's clear that he is receiving sound scientific advice, and hopefully this will translate to sound scientific policy if he's elected. McCain, on the other hand, has yet to answer this survey. Given his past positions on scientific issues--including his support of teaching intelligent design in science classrooms and his inability to say whether condoms help prevent the spread of HIV--he doesn't seem to be receiving the same quality of scientific advice as Obama. Regardless, you can send a request to his campaign for him to answer the questions via Scientists and Engineers for America, and then we can see how they really stack up.

Update (15 September 2008): McCain has now answered the questions. You can view his answers here and a side-by-side comparison with Obama's answers here.

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Research!America and our more than 40 partners have asked both candidates for their positions on health, science and research. While a slightly different focus than this initiative, which we have signed onto, it does add to the picture of the candidates' positions. Check out both presidential candidates' responses (and responses from Congressional candidates and a related public opinion poll to compare where Americans stand) at www.yourcandidatesyourhealth.com.

Thanks for this -- I wasn't aware of this initiative before.