In a bit of a departure from this column's usual focus on energy and the environment, I would like to take some time to review the two candidates' science agendas. With climate change and energy (finally) receiving their fair share of attention in the traditional media, I thought my energy would be better spent this week examining two other undercovered issues that are near and dear to me: science and education.
This seems especially relevant now that we know the identity of John McCain's vice presidential running mate: a woman who supports the teaching of creationism in schools and who believes that global warming is not man-made. Now, while I hate to rush to judgment, I can't say these views exactly inspire confidence in her ability to help flesh out a robust science platform -- even if one presumes McCain will have the final say (which doesn't necessarily make me feel much better).
Before I plunge into the specifics of McCain's policy proposals (or get too carried away dwelling on Palin's qualifications), however, I'd first like to take a look at Obama's surprisingly ambitious agenda. While Obama has never been one to skimp on the details -- especially on his policy-heavy website -- his campaign, in answering the 14 questions posed by the ScienceDebate2008 coalition, recently provided another wealth of information for wonks like me to chew over. And, as someone who hails from a background in the sciences, I can tell you there's quite a lot that is good about it.
For one thing, an Obama-Biden administration would make basic research and the teaching of science and technology two major priorities. While many of the United States' top research universities continue to rank among the world's best, attracting and churning out large numbers of skilled scientists and engineers, it's no big secret that our high schools and elementary schools have fallen behind. There are many reasons for this, but one that I often hear mentioned -- whether by leading scientists or top executives -- is our students' faltering abilities in the sciences. Nowhere is this more obvious than in said top research universities, where an increasing number of students are coming from China, India and Europe.
To counter this downward trend, Obama proposes to boost funding for research grants and to encourage students to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields by ensuring they have the proper science curriculum. A crucial aspect of his platform is training more and better qualified teachers; breaking with the usual dogma, Obama would reward teachers who excel at their jobs and who take on tough assignments in underserved areas in order to recruit the very best science graduates.
The responses he provided to all the questions, which dealt with a range of topics including ocean health, stem cell research and scientific integrity, reveal a depth of knowledge and an appreciation for what good science can accomplish. While there's no guarantee that he will actually follow through on all of his proposals, it says something that he (or at least his advisors) took the time to hammer out such concrete policies. Obama understands that he needs a well-educated and highly skilled workforce to help many of his most far-seeing policies come to fruition.
For somebody in my position, who often hears about promising young scientists leaving academe because of a lack of funding, it's extremely encouraging to hear a candidate pledge to "harness science and technology to address the "grand challenges" of the 21st century" by doubling research budgets over the next decade. Although his plan may not have been as extensive, Joe Biden, when he was running for president, also made science and education top priorities -- vowing to double funding for the NSF and NIH and to boost stem cell research, among others.
To his credit, John McCain has also said that he favors expanding research funding and higher education opportunities to improve the country's competitiveness and innovation. Unlike his opponent, however, he has unveiled little in the way of a science or education platform -- only saying that he would return much of the decision-making process to state governments and support such conservative staples as school vouchers -- and has not yet answered ScienceDebate2008's questions. He does support increasing funding for space exploration and stem cell research -- provided it doesn't involve harvest human embryo cells -- though he has generally not shown much interest in non-climate science issues.
His (and his running mate's) views on teaching evolution in the classroom leaves something to be desired. We don't yet know much about Palin's views on science and education -- aside from the fact that she supports fully funding K-12 and teaching "morals" -- but the little we've heard (as detailed above) isn't encouraging.
While I'm obviously biased, I doubt McCain could say or do much more -- save from scrapping most of his current policy proposals -- to win me over. As he has done for energy and climate change, Obama has compiled an impressive set of policies that makes clear his intention to finally put education and science at the top of his presidential agenda. And, as any scientist will tell you, it's hard to knock a guy who likes research so much.