First, Sciencedebate needs to be praised for making both candidates explain their future policies for science and technology. They now have to take a stand on the subject. I have not seen many European leaders being put in that position. They too often get away with obligatory oneliners as ‘science and technology is very important for innovation’ without being asked how they will realize that. Which gives them opportunity not to follow up words with actions. With their answers to Sciencedebate 2008, that will be more difficult for both Senator Obama and McCain.
An American Lisbon Agenda?
Having said that, the first thing that comes to mind when reading their answers is how traditional both candidates are. Many proposals resemble much of the debate in Europe at the start of the Lisbon Agenda in 2000. Their approach does not seem to be very innovative. And some subjects that are being discussed at this side of the Atlantic remain untouched, like the influence of new technologies on science and innovation, the rise of open innovation models wherein scientists and companies are working together, the role of user generated innovation and the role of intellectual property and copyright. Where is the real change?
And the most pressing subject for Europe is almost absent, namely the future shortage of labor. Our modern society depends more and more on scientists and engineers, but less and less people seem interested in pursuing such a career. So, where and how do we find enough students, teachers and professionals? Both senators touch upon this subject, but only very light.
The second thing that raises doubts is the reality of their ambitions given the current financial crisis. Both candidates pledge to invest more in science and technology, especially Sen. Obama. He promises a bold growth rate, even doubling basic research budgets in the next decade. Actually, on most of the 14 questions his answer is to spend more. But how much value have these statements given the current financial crisis? Probably much of the political programmes have to be rewritten after the election, as Senator Obama already hinted in the first presidential debate. Which means their answers to Sciencedebate 2008 need be to seen as preliminary.
How do both candidates try to convince voters they are the best candidate for science and technology? Sen. McCain often refers to technologies with a military purpose as argument for investing in it. And the Republican nominee points at his record. He proudly states that under his guiding hand a wireless spectrum policy has been developed that spurred the rise of mobile phones and wireless internet in the US. From a European perspective, this does not seem something to be so proud of because Europe and other countries like Korea are much further and subsequently have much higher penetration rates than the US.
Sen. Obama is mostly worried about the declining position of the US in education and research. For a competing US he wants to bring science and technology back on top of the rankings. Not just for military purposes, but as economical strategy and to help solve the big environmental and health problems that the US faces. The Democratic nominee is a strong believer in science and technology as solutions provider. Not surprising, in the first presidential debate he named science and technology one of three priorities that need to be upheld despite the financial crisis.
In general this makes Obama the more credible candidate, but before drawing conclusions lets first go to some of the issues. With respect to climate change Sen. Obama seems more ambitious at first sight when he says he wants to cut back carbon emissions with 80 percent by 2050 whereas Sen. McCain sets his goals at 60 percent. But both want to get back to 1990 levels in 2020. Obama says he will start immediately with annual targets, McCain will not. Both will introduce a market-based cap-and-trade system, as the EU already has done.
Global, or local, or space?
Obama focuses on international cooperation where McCain looks more to national incentives. For instance, creating a tax credit for wages spent on R&D and a 300 million dollar prize for the development of a battery for electric cars. Obama wants to invest 150 billion dollar over ten years in clean energy on a wide variety of programs, whereas McCain mentions 2 billion dollar annually for clean coal technology. Obama wants 10 percent of America’s energy to come from renewable sources in 2012, and 25 percent in 2025. McCain does not commit to targets but wants to build 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030.
With regard to education, Sen. McCain wants to ‘fill the pipeline’ to higher education, and beyond. We should not forget to retrain displaced workers for rapidly evolving economy, he states. But his rhetoric on promoting science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM) is rather traditional and limited. He wants more science fairs and student competitions and promises to support STEM programs. Sen. Obama goes further by having introduced the Enhancing STEM Education Act 2008, sponsoring summer schools, developing programs to attract more STEM teachers and invest in early childhood education, as well as a 4000 dollar tax credit for children to access higher education in STEM fields.
Sen. Obama strongly supports stem cell research and wants to lift the restrictions that President Bush has put in place. He does not want to restrict funding and gives oversight back into the hands of the National Research Council. Sen. McCain’s answer is short. He supports funding but hopes that recent scientific breakthroughs will make the debate academic. Because of military reasons, Sen. McCain wants the US to remain a leader in space. Space exploration and research is top priority for him. For security, Obama wants to renew DARPA, the Defense research program that brought us the internet in the late sixties.
What will the candidates do to ensure implementation of their ambitions? Next to increase spending (especially Obama) and the creation of various programs, they foresee organisational changes. Sen. Obama’s most innovative idea is to establish a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) within the White House. A new position that must ensure that government has the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. Also, the role of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) will be restored.
And his answer to the Bush years is to restore the principle that government decisions are based upon available scientific evidence. Sen. McCain will also appoint a Science and Technology Advisor and comes with his solution too most problems: eliminate wasteful earmarks and bureaucracy. He also wants to develop and implement a global competitive agenda through a series of round tables with industry and academia leaders.
Looking at their answer, Senator Obama is the better choice for science and technology. He has a more eleborate programme and invests substantially more. And above all, he seems more commited than Senator McCain. For Obama, science and technology is not just a military but a economical, social and environmental strategy. It is crucial to keep the U.S. competitive in the future.
Having said that, there remains a lot to be critical. Both candidates have trouble going beyond the usual rhetoric and in European eyes are pretty traditional in their approach. There is less change than hoped for. And given the financial and economic crisis we know plans as being presented here will not be implemented. So how much value do the answers of Obama and McCain to Sciencedebate 2008 really have then?
Who will be the CTO of America?
That brings me back to the people issue. Probably the most important factor for a successful policy on science and technology will be the person that will be responsible for science and technology in the next administration. Will he or she be a strong but innovative administrator and an advisor with the President’s ear? If so, that could well be the best guarantee for good US policy on science and technology. Therefore we need to ask Senator Obama, and Senator McCain as well: Who will be your CTO?
In the coming weeks, before and after the elections, we should ask that important 15th question. And let us debate it. Let me make the first suggestion: Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford internet law professor and founder of Creative Commons. He understands very well how technology is changing not only society but also science itself. And he knows how to transfer that into practical policies to make sure the U.S. can answer the challenges of the 21st century.
Joeri van den Steenhoven is co- founder and chairman of Knowledgeland, a thinktank on the knowledge society based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
This article has been written on request of ScienceGuide, a Dutch ezine on higher education.
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