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  Government & Policy  
  October 18, 2004
Volume 82, Number 42
pp. 35-37

Both candidates for U.S. president profess support for research and technology


Science and technology issues are a part of most presidential campaigns, and this year's contest between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry has its share of contentious issues. Stem cell research, energy production, and space exploration are among the topics on which the candidates have expressed views.

Kerry-Edwards 2004, Inc. from Sharon Farmer
Recently, the American Association for the Advancement of Science held an open forum in Washington, D.C., where representatives of the two candidates for president addressed science policy concerns and tried to clarify where each candidate stands on some controversial issues. That discussion, along with points made by the candidates in their speeches and position papers, shows some differences in how each approaches science and technology. The AAAS forum also addressed the recurring issue of the politicization of science.

Speaking for the policies of President Bush was Robert S. Walker, former U.S. representative from Pennsylvania, one-time chairman of the House Science Committee, and current chairman of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates. Walker described the increases in funding that science and technology agencies have received during the Bush Administration, focusing on the total R&D support, which he said has risen 44% since Bush's first year. "Four years ago, there was a good deal of skepticism that a Bush Administration would give a high priority to [science and technology]. Now, the record shows that this Administration has made the commitment," Walker said. He also cited the continued increases in budgets at the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

Representing Kerry at the forum was Henry Kelly, formerly the assistant director for technology of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and the current president of the Federation of American Scientists. Kelly opened with criticism of Bush policies on energy, stem cell research, and climate change. Also, he claimed that too many important science decisions in this Administration are being made behind closed doors and are based on political considerations instead of scientific consensus. With respect to support of research, "Kerry will make management of the federal research portfolio a major priority," Kelly said.

Kelly made a point of describing the support and endorsements that the Kerry campaign was receiving from some prominent scientists. He noted that several groups of noted scientists have endorsed Kerry and that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) had collected more than 60 signatures on a report that is highly critical of science policies of the Bush Administration.

Walker responded aggressively on the issue of politicization, calling the UCS report a purely political document and warning that scientists had better understand what they are getting themselves into. "A lot of scientists who come out of the academic community come from institutions that have a heavy liberal bias," Walker told the forum, cautioning that scientists should not let their objectivity be compromised by partisan politics. "Science does itself disservice when it mixes with politics in a way that can engender a pushback in the future."

Asked what he meant by a pushback, Walker said he did not mean to imply that politically active scientists could be punished for their activism, but added: "My point is, if they get into politics, then they're going to find they're in politics."

Still, there were several points of agreement by the candidates' representatives. For instance, both Bush and Kerry agree that it is vital that peer review remain the mechanism for awarding federal research grants. Walker noted that some members of Congress earlier this year had tried to block NIH grants dealing with human sexuality, saying the research was objectionable. "This Administration is for peer review," Walker said. "I am hopeful that the powers that be on Capitol Hill on the various science committees will defend the idea that you ought to have science based on peer review and not on political decision-making."

BOTH CANDIDATES also are concerned about the increase in congressional "earmarking" of science projects. Kerry has noted his objections to this practice, saying there are better ways to increase research support in smaller institutions, such as NSF's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). He is also concerned about the international competitiveness of earmarked projects that are not peer reviewed. In his plans for reducing federal deficits, Kerry has indicated he will seek line-item veto power to cut earmarks from spending bills. Bush does not approve of earmarking either and has frequently complained about how pork barrel projects have inflated the size of appropriations bills. He has stated that "competitive peer review is the cornerstone of the scientific establishment."

The speakers at the forum also agreed that their candidates wish for more progress on the problem of getting and retaining visas for immigrating foreign students and scientists. Kelly told the forum that the Bush Administration policies since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have caused big problems for universities. "A survey of 25 top research universities has found that they have declining foreign student applications. Even Bush has acknowledged the problem," he said. Kerry has pledged to put more resources into this problem and to develop better procedures.

Walker, too, acknowledged that obtaining student visas has become a concern but said that the problems resulted from having to act quickly after Sept. 11 to tighten security measures across U.S. society. "It has been imperfect thus far, but hopefully it will get better in the months ahead," he said.

On a variety of other science and technology issues, there are serious divisions between the presidential candidates. Some of the more public include the debate over expanding embryonic stem cell research and the proper action to take regarding global climate change.

Policies on the conduct of embryonic stem cell research sharply divide Bush and Kerry. The issue is extremely controversial because the creation of some new cell lines would involve the use and destruction of human embryos. Bush severely restricted federally supported research in August 2001 to only those cell lines started by that date. He has not wavered from the policy since then, despite scientists' concerns that actual usable cell lines under this policy are too few to enable much research. Before Bush allowed this limited support, there was no federal spending on embryonic stem cell research.

At the AAAS forum, Walker argued that Bush has taken a moderate path, funding embryonic stem cell research in such a way that it avoided a serious confrontation in Congress, where even tighter restrictions might have been imposed. "Without his leadership, there could have been a firestorm on Capitol Hill that would have retarded progress," he said. Walker also noted that considerable advances have been made in using other stem cells, such as umbilical cord blood stem cells, in treatment of diseases. Bush has stated that he remains committed to fully exploring the promise and potential of stem cell research without violating ethical principles and while maintaining respect for all human life. Bush has also repeated his opposition to all forms of human cloning, even if for research purposes.

But the Kerry camp believes the Bush research limitations are misguided. "You need a variety of cells for research, and the restrictions are a major problem," Kelly said. He added that Kerry, too, opposes human cloning, but he emphasized that there is a clear distinction between cloning and the medical research use of stem cells to pursue treatment of disease. Kerry supports allowing researchers to use somatic cell nuclear transfer to fight disease. According to a Kerry statement, "Our president is sacrificing science for ideology and playing politics with people who need cures." Kerry has said he would lift the restrictions on stem cell research, funding it with at least $100 million a year "while ensuring strict ethical oversight of the research."

On the topic of global climate change, the Bush Administration seems to have said all it is going to say. Its policy is centered on the proposal Bush made in February 2003 to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas intensity--that is, the ratio of emissions to economic output--by 18% by 2012. In addition, Bush says he has "advanced the science of climate change, including development of a Global Earth Observation system; promoted cost-effective opportunities for near-term emissions reductions; and built on the international climate-change partnerships that this Administration has forged with countries responsible for more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions."

Despite what seems like an open opportunity to show a significant difference between himself and the President, Kerry has not made much of an issue of climate change. Speaking for Kerry, Kelly chastised the Bush Administration for failing to act on the issue and for failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change yet offering no alternative for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Kerry has said he would not sign the protocol but has said he would reenter international negotiations on reducing greenhouse gases and set concrete limits to reduce "global warming pollution" in the U.S.

Any greenhouse gas reduction efforts are, of course, tightly linked with a national energy policy; the two candidates have taken positions on the U.S.'s energy future that sound very much alike. For example, both candidates have endorsed more use of clean-coal technologies to reduce oil imports and reduce air pollution. Both have also promised to enact mandatory, enforceable standards for electricity companies to ensure greater reliability of the electricity grid.

Kerry-Edwards 2004, Inc. from Sharon Farmer
Walker emphasized the President's commitment to building a hydrogen-based economy, with programs like the International Partnership for a Hydrogen Economy, as the "best hope for reducing our reliance on other countries" for energy resources. He stated that advances toward a hydrogen economy were a nearer term solution than Kerry was willing to admit, perhaps only a decade away. Other Bush campaign statements on energy include seeking environmentally safe exploration for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, providing incentives for exploration for natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico, removing impediments to building new petrochemical refineries, and utilizing more nuclear power as a viable and emissions-free energy source.

Kerry also would move to increase production of U.S. energy resources, in unspecified ways, yet vows to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Kerry says he would invest in new technologies and alternative fuels, increase programs for energy conservation, and create tax incentives for automobile makers to produce more fuel-efficient cars. Kerry also would strongly support hydrogen research, but as Kelly told the AAAS forum, "he does not mistake a hydrogen program for a coherent energy program." With regard to nuclear power, Kerry says it plays an essential role in U.S. energy policy, but that serious security problems must be solved. He also strongly opposes construction of the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, a project actively supported by the Bush Administration.

CLOSELY ALLIED to nuclear energy is the serious issue of nuclear weapons proliferation. Both candidates have declared this to be the greatest threat facing U.S. security, and each has a plan for reducing the threat. Bush has presented a proposal that would expand international cooperation to stop the movement of nuclear material, including programs to help the former Soviet states in dismantling nuclear weapons and giving employment to former nuclear weapons scientists. He says he would close international loopholes to prevent the selling of material and equipment for nuclear power plants that could be diverted to weapons use and he would strive to ensure that the International Atomic Energy Agency is effective in its job of policing for nuclear problems. For the U.S., Bush has declared that the U.S. nuclear weapons program needs to continue, and he has increased funding for nuclear weapons work at the national laboratories because U.S. security "requires a flexible and responsible weapons-complex infrastructure."

Kerry has also presented a multipart proposal for dealing with nuclear proliferation, including improved international efforts such as making the security of old missiles a high priority between the U.S. and Russia. He has said he would ban production of material for new nuclear weapons, toughen export controls and penalties for trafficking in bomb-making materials, and make it a priority to end the nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran. As for the U.S. nuclear program, Kerry has stated he would end the pursuit of a new generation of nuclear weapons and that the role of the national labs should be to ensure that our current weapons stockpile is safe, secure, and reliable.

Another topic discussed at the AAAS forum was the future of manned spaceflights and the National Aeronautics & Space Administration. President Bush made a commitment in January to support an expanded space program that would return U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2020 and use the moon as a base for further exploration of the solar system. Such exploration is a basic human drive, Walker said, and the President's program is a modest investment over the next 20 to 30 years that will provide payback in technological advances and in discovering "new ideas of who we are."

While Kerry supports NASA's mission, he sees a need for better balance, Kelly told the forum. However, "all the missions need to be supported within the constraints of the budget." Kerry has said little about space exploration or science in his campaign, but he has indicated he would try to increase funding for NASA because the agency makes important contributions to the U.S. economy and helps us understand the world we live in.

Both candidates for president have signaled a strong respect and appreciation for the importance of science and technology in the U.S. Both say they will increase research spending over the next four years, and both will strive to strengthen the nation's scientific infrastructure by improving education and improving international cooperation. But there are differences as well, in both their philosophy of science and personal convictions.

  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2004

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