Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama and McCain on Science

Several people have asked for my take on the two Presidential tickets with respect to their attitudes toward science. So here goes.

From my perspective, there are good things and bad things about both candidates and science. Looking at the official web sites, Obama appears to have the better fleshed out positions and there are some important differences.

McCain seems more supportive of the idea that we need to consider nuclear power as part of our new energy mix, a stand I actually support given the new safer reactor designs that are available. Obama’s position on nuclear power is less clear.

McCain’s position on the space program is more similar to mine since I believe that a strong space program including a manned component along with robotics is vital to our long-term security and technological innovation.

Obama has been openly skeptical of NASA’s current direction and it is not clear to me that he has the same enthusiasm for the Space program that McCain has.

But see this article from SpaceRef:

where the Obama campaign has fleshed out a detailed set of proposals. So maybe my initial impression is misplaced.

Obama seems more committed to increasing government support for science and science education than does McCain at least according to this article:

Of course what will happen when campaign promises meet economic and political reality is not at all clear.

The article has a good comparison between the two candidates stand on other science related issues.

With respect to global warming (I mean climate change) their positions are similar on the surface. However Obama seems less willing to rely just on free market forces to respond without targeted government investment in development of new technologies.

Both candidates support a so called cap and trade system for trading carbon credits but Obama seems to be arguing that if we are not careful the system will end up benefiting oil and coal producers.

Obama is more enamored with use of biofuels such as ethanol than I might like. Indeed he has the endorsement of the American Corn Grower's Association:

McCain sometimes seems to be positioning himself as a bit like William Proxmire whose “Golden Fleece” awards were meant to expose government boondoggles but from time to time merely exposed Proxmire’s ignorance or unwillingness to find out why scientists do some of the seemingly crazy studies they do.

This McCain tendency was highlighted when he poked fun a study of DNA in bears, not understanding that these sorts of genetic studies are useful for understanding the biology of bears and managing bear populations. Maybe this is just be an expression of McCain’s maverick streak, but it could play out in bad science policy.


My unease about McCain is heightened now that we have the VP choices. Biden is known as a strong science advocate who supports embryonic stem cell research.

See these links from The Scientists and Engineer’s For America (SEA) web site about Biden:

See also this analysis from Scientific American:

According to the Scientific American analysis, Biden is less enamored with clean coal technology than Obama saying we ought to export it to China given that countries rapid building of coal fired plants.

Biden’s attitude toward the space program is hard to assess. One tidbit from the blog Science Politics is Obama's plan to resurrect the National Space council which is chaired by the Vice President. This could raise the visibility of science in an Obama administration.

Palin’s views on science are less clear but she supports teaching creationism or at least letting it come up in discussions about evolution.

At least she seems to recognize that climate change is real and we need to respond to it. Of course she’s from Alaska where the effects of human activity on climate are pretty hard to deny. I suspect that she would not support embryonic stem cell research given her anti choice stance.

Biden has made his feeling about intelligent design and creationism quite clear. According to the SEA article Biden is quoted as saying about intelligent design and creationism:

“"This is reversible, man. This is reversible. We don't have to go down this road. I refuse to believe the majority of people believe this malarkey!”

By the way McCain believes in evolution:

He is quoted as saying:

“'I think Americans should be exposed to every point of view,' he said. 'I happen to believe in evolution. ... I respect those who think the world was created in seven days. Should it be taught as a science class? Probably not.”

Obama is more forthright:

"Evolution is more grounded in my experience than angels."

One refreshing thing is that both McCain and Obama have pledged to avoid the politicization of Science that has plagued the current administration. See this link for details:

See also

So there you have it, my take on what the two tickets are saying about science and technology. Both tickets have to be an improvement over the current administration at least at the very top, though I am disturbed about what McCain’s VP choice suggests about his real attitudes toward science.

For more on the candidate’s science positions see these links fro the American Association for the Advancement of Science:



and this link from Physics Today:

On balance I believe Obama has the better fleshed out positions and seems more likely to support science aggressively. I am bothered by McCain's Proxmire like dismissal of science he doesn't understand as evidenced by his bear DNA comments, and his running mate's misconceptions about science are equally disturbing.

So just based on science policy, this admittedly liberal geek is giving Obama the nod.

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