Saturday, September 27, 2008

Science, Obama and McCain

No presidential candidate offered to show up for the Science Debate at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in April, but both candidates made it a point to visit evangelical pastor Rick Warren to answer questions on faith and moral values. It’s pretty clear where the candidates’ priorities are, and a little disheartening, considering stem-cell research promises to cure life-threatening diseases, and a rapidly warming world threatens life itself.

While the candidates may not be focusing on science, scientists certainly are keeping a close watch on them. McCain and Obama stare out of the cover in the latest issue of Nature, a prelude to a series of articles on the two rivals’ positions on everything from research to wireless Internet.

And boy, is there reason for it. The current administration has made a mockery of science by tailoring the EPA’s reports on global warming and manipulating endangered species lists to achieve its own political ends; NIH funding has seen a sharp decline from its glory years. It falls to the next American president to decide if stem cell research will be given the green light it needs, and whether mandatory greenhouse gas regulations will be instilled.

It is not hard to guess which of the two contenders in this race is more sympathetic to science. Well, it isn’t hard in any race, but this season, the difference couldn’t be starker. And not so much for McCain’s lack of support for science (after all, he’s proposed increasing NIH funding and voted to remove restrictions on stem cell research) as for Obama’s detailed positions on various issues dealing with scientific advancement in this country.

While Obama’s science advisory committee is a who’s who of academicians and scientific experts, McCain’s is a list of the usual suspects: political strategists, congressional staff, and corporate leaders. Obama intends to appoint a chief technology officer to oversee cross interactions, information sharing and improvement of technology among the various governmental departments. In addition he has proposed to counter the digital divide in America by expanding broadband access. One has only to look at his Web site to determine that the Illinois senator (and his advisers) know a thing or two about technology: the clean lines, abundant features, the seamless harmony, and the ease of use reflect a tech-savvy designer. As Noam Cohen deduced in an analysis – far too frivolous by New York Times’ standards – Obama would be a mac in the world of computers.

Add to that the scrupulous way in which the supposed novice to national politics has run his campaign – a true, Internet-style, power-distributive, bottom-up democratic approach. Josh Green of The Atlantic calls him this year’s hottest Silicon Valley start-up. The campaign’s use of the Internet to rally support certainly has to go in the books as one of the top reasons for Obama’s success, right alongside inspiring speeches, enviable charisma and good judgment.

Obama has spoken about conducting “online fireside chats” as president, has proposed a Google-like database for all federal money spent, and suggested putting non-emergency legislation online for five days for people to vote on. Most notably, in a Q&A with Nature (which McCain refused to participate in), Obama spoke of the necessity to invest in basic research, which can reap great medical rewards in the long run, despite the fact that specific projects are often unpredictable. Scientists often have trouble getting their heads around this unfortunate fact of science, with the NIH itself insisting on applicative proof and potential benefits when approving funding for research projects.

In addition, Obama has categorically stated that he will lift the ban on stem-cell research. That he has more than a cursory grasp of the subject is evident from the fact that he has distinguished between embryonic and adult stem cells and reinforced the versatility of the former. Obama’s endorsement of the America Competes Act, intended to increase research budgets and his proposal to use science and technology to address issues such as health care and climate change are reassuring to any proponent of science.

For a person who rarely refrains from invoking the name of god at the stump, he is quite firm in his rejection of teaching creationism in schools. “I do not believe it is helpful to our students to cloud discussions of science with non-scientific theories like intelligent design that are not subject to experimental scrutiny,” he said to Nature. Joe Biden, also well known for his religious beliefs, but true to form, has been slightly more blunt on the subject of intelligent design. “I refuse to believe that the majority of people believe this malarkey,” he has said more than once. Biden has not so subtly questioned Palin’s position on stem-cell research despite the affliction of her youngest child with Down syndrome.

It is positions such as this, in addition to her refusal to believe that global warming is man made, that make Palin's presence on the Republican ticket more terrifying than it already is. McCain may not check email or the Google, but at least he gave a perfunctory nod to the Darwinian theory before launching into an ode to the hand of god in the Grand Canyon.

To his credit, and possibly to his political detriment, McCain has been more vociferous than most republicans on issues of energy policy, including removing tariffs for biofuels, and endorsing the cap-and-trade approach for emissions regulation. With regard to medical research, he has twice voted to remove restrictions on stem-cell research and proposed increased NIH funding.

However, the addition of Sarah Palin to the ticket erases any confidence the scientific community had placed in the senator from Arizona. If there were danger that McCain might toss science into the proverbial frying pan, then Sarah Palin would not hesitate to drop it directly into the fire.