By David Malakoff

A vague plague on both their houses.

That's one message from a new comparison of the innovation and technology policies backed by U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The 33-page report, released today by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), concludes that neither candidate is crystal clear about how he would deal with a host of R&D issues, ranging from federal support for science to regulating the Internet.

Information on how each candidate would approach R&D is "a little thinner this year than it was in 2008 on both sides," ITIF President Robert Atkinson said in a conference call with reporters this afternoon. And "innovation and competitiveness policy really hasn't been a serious part of the election conversation to date."

Still, the ITIF analysis has teased out some general themes about each candidate's views on the federal government's role in R&D. Both men talk up the importance of federal investments in basic research, but diverge on how government should approach more applied activities. "We see Obama as being more willing to have government be an active partner with industry" in helping fund early-stage technology, for instance, while "Romney would take a lighter touch role for government and have the private sector take the lead" in many areas, Atkinson says.

In general, Romney tends to stress tax and regulatory reform, the analysis notes, while Obama emphasizes the need to improve the nation's digital infrastructure and worker skills. And on spending, the Obama Administration believes that agencies funding basic research should be exempt from spending rollbacks, while the Romney camp hasn't said whether those agencies would be shielded from the across-the-board budget cuts that it has proposed.

The Washington, D.C.-based ITIF doesn't take a position on which candidate would do a better job of sparking innovation. "We're a nonpartisan think-tank," says Atkinson, noting that it issued a similar comparison in the 2008 elections. But "ideally, you'd want a merged candidate" that embraced positions held by each party. "[N]either candidate nor political party gets it entirely right," the report concludes. "[I]f the United States is to maximize its innovation and competitiveness potential, it's going to have to adopt the best ideas from both parties."

The analysis looks at 10 issues, including tax and trade policy, biotechnology, and energy research. It is "encouraging" that both Obama and Romney "acknowledge the central role that science, technology, and innovation play in driving economic growth," it says. But both contenders come in for criticism.

"It's disappointing that the vast majority of the literature that the 2012 Obama-Biden campaign has made available on its science, technology, and innovation policies points to the Administration's past achievements and less so to the policies it would like to enact over a second term," it says. "In general, more specificity is needed regarding the Obama Administration's science, technology, and innovation goals should it win a second term." The report does give the Administration credit, however, for coming up with a detailed plan for reinvigorating high-tech manufacturing.

The Romney campaign is taken to task for issuing plans that "only addresses energy innovation and not the broader role of federal R&D investment in stimulating innovation in other areas, including life sciences, nanotechnology, or advanced manufacturing." And it notes that Romney's budget plan suggests that it is "likely" that civilian R&D agencies would see their budgets drop by 5% from current levels. How a Romney Administration would actually distribute those cuts if approved by Congress is "an open question," Atkinson says, "but the fact they don't call out science" for protection implies that the pain would be spread equally.

See more coverage on science and the U.S. 2012 elections.

ScienceNOW, the daily online news service of the journal Science

Click through the slideshow below to see the's top 14 science questions for the candidates, along with some science questions submitted by the HuffPost community.

What science questions do you want to see the candidates answer? Tweet us @HuffPostScience, using the hashtag #presquiz.

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  • 1. Innovation and the Economy

    Science and technology have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII, when the federal government first prioritized peacetime science mobilization. But several recent reports question America's continued leadership in these vital areas. <strong>What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

  • 2. Climate Change

    The Earth's climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. <strong>What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change--and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

  • 3. Research and the Future

    Federally funded research has helped to produce America's major postwar economies and to ensure our national security, but today the UK, Singapore, China, and Korea are making competitive investments in research. <strong>Given that the next Congress will face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in research in your upcoming budgets?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

  • 4. Pandemics and Biosecurity

    Recent experiments show how Avian flu may become transmissible among mammals. <strong>In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from emerging diseases, global pandemics and/or deliberate biological attacks?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

  • 5. Education

    Increasingly, the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st. <strong>In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

  • 6. Energy

    Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. <strong>What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

  • 7. Food

    Thanks to science and technology, the United States has the world's most productive and diverse agricultural sector, yet many Americans are increasingly concerned about the health and safety of our food. <strong>The use of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, as well as animal diseases and even terrorism pose risks. What steps would you take to ensure the health, safety and productivity of America's food supply?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

  • 8. Fresh Water

    Less than one percent of the world's water is liquid fresh water, and scientific studies suggest that a majority of U.S. and global fresh water is now at risk because of increasing consumption, evaporation and pollution. <strong>What steps, if any, should the federal government take to secure clean, abundant fresh water for all Americans?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

  • 9. The Internet

    The Internet plays a central role in both our economy and our society. <strong>What role, if any, should the federal government play in managing the Internet to ensure its robust social, scientific, and economic role?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

  • 10. Ocean Health

    Scientists estimate that 75 percent of the world's fisheries are in serious decline, habitats like coral reefs are threatened, and large areas of ocean and coastlines are polluted. <strong>What role should the federal government play domestically and through foreign policy to protect the environmental health and economic vitality of the oceans?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

  • 11. Science in Public Policy

    We live in an era when science and technology affect every aspect of life and society, and so must be included in well-informed public policy decisions. <strong>How will you ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are fully informed by the best available scientific and technical information, and that the public is able to evaluate the basis of these policy decisions?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

  • 12. Space

    The United States is currently in a major discussion over our national goals in space. <strong>What should America's space exploration and utilization goals be in the 21st century and what steps should the government take to help achieve them?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

  • 13. Critical Natural Resources

    Supply shortages of natural resources affect economic growth, quality of life, and national security; for example China currently produces 97% of rare earth elements needed for advanced electronics. <strong>What steps should the federal government take to ensure the quality and availability of critical natural resources?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

  • 14. Vaccination and public health

    Vaccination campaigns against preventable diseases such as measles, polio and whooping cough depend on widespread participation to be effective, but in some communities vaccination rates have fallen off sharply. <strong>What actions would you support to enforce vaccinations in the interest of public health, and in what circumstances should exemptions be allowed?</strong> Credit:, <a href="" target="_hplink">Top American Science Questions 2012 </a>

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