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February 16, 2008

Presidential Campaigns Call for Big Boosts to Research Funding

Clinton Representatives of the two remaining major Democratic candidates for U.S. president both endorsed big budget increases for federally funded basic scientific research at a debate before hundreds of scientists today, with the Clinton team offering decidedly more specifics on their plans.

Apart from that distinction, few policy differences emerged during the hour and half debate held this afternoon to generally Obamapositive reviews. None of the details the campaigns laid out were new. In addition, neither committed to a proposed science debate for the candidates themselves, which would be supported by major research organizations and thousands of U.S. scientists, and which would take place on 18 April in Philadelphia. And both trained more fire on outgoing president George Bush than each other.

Calling for a war on "politicization" of federal science by political appointees, Clinton campaign advisor Tom Kalil pledged to "restore" the role of the president's science advisor, saying that Bush's White House Office of Science and Technology Policy had been "banished to bureaucratic Siberia." He called for a doubling over ten years of the basic research budgets at the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Pentagon, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Obama campaign advisor Alec Ross spoke in more generalities, calling for a doubling of "basic science" funding in five years. He declined to say which agencies would get the boost. Ross did, though repeatedly echo stump speech lines by Sen. Obama calling for an end to the Washington influence of "special interests" and well-funded lobbyists. "We are going to restore science policy to science and scientists," said Ross. Among Obama's plans, Ross mentioned, was a call for $150 billion in new funds over the next decade to advance biofuels, hybrid cars and improvements to the national power grid. We want "science not just for the sake of science," Ross said.

Kalil and Ross don't have a strong background in academic science or federal basic science policy. Neither, for example, had any names to offer when the moderator, Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times, asked which experts Obama or Clinton would appoint to an advisory council on bioethics. Ross, a social entrepreneur for a company that provides technology in poor communities, showed his relative inexperience with science policy by repeatedly sending the audience to "the website" for more details. (He did raise eyebrows, however, when he promised a space initiative that would hit "the newspapers" in the coming weeks.)

But Kalil, who worked on technology policy in the Clinton White House and works as an administrator at the University of California, showed a bit more familiarity with the challenges facing federally funded scientists, declaring at one point that "these days you have to do the experiment before you can write the grant."

Reaction by the crowd was mostly warm.   University of Michigan medical geneticist Gil Omenn, a former head of AAAS, gave his approval to both candidates, lauding their respective "big extensive programs" in science. Union of Concerned Scientists representative Michael Halpern said that both campaigns were "cautious" in their details but added that their presence showed "a wish to engage the scientific community." Molecular biologist Michael Chou, a graduate student at Harvard Medical School, was less kind. "It wasn't very deep," he said.   

The presumptive Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), was invited but sent regrets, said Al Teich of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "They apparently would have liked to come." Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee did not respond to AAAS's invitation. The Association of American Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges co-organized the event.

Although neither campaign would commit to a future science debate, Ross told the scientific community to continue to organize on science issues in the coming months.    "You have to pound on the candidates," he said, emphasizing that his attendance showed how seriously the campaigns were taking the issue. "We get hundreds of these [requests] and we take very, very few of them," he added.

--Eli Kintisch