You may have heard about Science Debate 2008, the effort by a large number of scientists and hundreds of academic and other organizations engaged in research and education (including my own university, whose president, John Welty, is a signatory) to have a public debate on science and technology issues during the current campaign for the US presidency. The campaign didn’t manage to get such a debate during the primary season, and I’m not sure we’ll get one during the main event over the next several months either. As part of the effort to get the candidates to address science & technology issues, the campaign collected 3400 questions from all over the country that could be asked of them if they ever agreed to the debate. Earlier this summer the campaign distilled the questions down to a concise list of 14 which it sent to both candidates, seeking at least written responses. Barack Obama, now the official Democratic nominee elected at the party’s Convention this week, has responded! To every one of the 14 questions, and fairly substantially, I must say. Oh how I would love to see him directly engage McCain (who is yet to respond to the questionnaire) in a face to face debate on television this election season! But I’m not holding my breath. At least we know what to expect from an Obama presidency, and on the whole, that outlook is really refreshing after the last 8 years when we were rolling back the Enlightenment and rushing headlong all the way back to the middle ages in this country.
You really must (especially if you have a vote in this election, but even otherwise, if you care about where the US is headed) read Obama’s response in its entirety. And I’m urging you to do this as someone who doesn’t actually get to vote in this one! But before you go (or maybe after you come back here) let me get you started here with some excerpts relevant to reconciliation ecology, annotated with some of my own immediate thoughts:
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. What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change—a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research? Are there other policies you would support?
There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively. First, the U.S. must get off the sidelines and take long-overdue action here at home to reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions. We must also take a leadership role in designing technologies that allow us to enjoy a growing, prosperous economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. With the right incentives, I’m convinced that American ingenuity can do this, and in the process make American businesses more productive, create jobs, and make America’s buildings and vehicles safer and more attractive. This is a global problem. U.S. leadership is essential but solutions will require contributions from all parts of the world—particularly the rest of the world’s major emitters: China, Europe, and India.
Specifically, I will implement a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. I will start reducing emissions immediately by establishing strong annual reduction targets with an intermediate goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. A cap- and-trade program draws on the power of the marketplace to reduce emissions in a cost- effective and flexible way. I will require all pollution credits to be auctioned.
I remain skeptical of “market-based” solutions, and would like to see more direct regulation, with stronger penalties for polluting industries. But I can understand if—despite the recent and massive failures of so many deregulated, free-market pillars of the US economy (need a list? how about starting with Enron, the California energy-trading fiascos, the Bush administrations weakening of many environmental regulations on grounds that the industry will self-regulate, and on through the recent spectacular collapse of the housing market?)—a Democratic candidate is still shy about mentioning the need for direct regulation of polluting industries. Surely the “free-market” carrots must be accompanied by some govt. stick if we are to meet the emission reduction targets he is accepting from us scientists, no? He must know that – I hope!
I will restore U.S. leadership in strategies for combating climate change and work closely with the international community. We will re-engage with the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the main international forum dedicated to addressing the climate change problem. In addition I will create a Global Energy Forum—based on the G8+5, which includes all G-8 members plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa—comprising the largest energy consuming nations from both the developed and developing world. This forum would focus exclusively on global energy and environmental issues. I will also create a Technology Transfer Program dedicated to exporting climate-friendly technologies, including green buildings, clean coal and advanced automobiles, to developing countries to help them combat climate change.
I’m not sure the US ever was a leader in combating climate change. I mean, even within the US political scene, Al Gore’s was a most lonely voice for most of the past two decades crying about climate change. Yet even the Clinton-Gore administration did plenty to deregulate industry, allowing disasters like Enron to flourish on their watch. The last 8 years, of course, have been an unmitigated disaster, and the world is more than ready to have the US rejoin the fold of civilized nations willing to look the looming global challenge in the eye and engage in finding a collective solution. So these are welcome words, and I particularly like the idea of the Global Energy Forum. So, Go Obama!!
9. Ocean Health. Scientists estimate that some 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are in serious decline and habitats around the world like coral reefs are seriously threatened. What steps, if any, should the United States take during your presidency to protect ocean health?
Oceans are crucial to the earth’s ecosystem and to all Americans because they drive global weather patterns, feed our people and are a major source of employment for fisheries and recreation. As president, I will commit my administration to develop the kind of strong, integrated, well-managed program of ocean stewardship that is essential to sustain a healthy marine environment.
Global climate change could have catastrophic effects on ocean ecologies. Protection of the oceans is one of the many reasons I have developed an ambitious plan to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases 80 percent below 1990 by 2050. We need to enhance our understanding of the effect of climate change on oceans and the effect of acidification on marine life through expanded research programs at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). I will propel the U.S. into a leadership position in marine stewardship and climate change research. Stronger collaboration across U.S. scientific agencies and internationally is needed in basic research and for designing mitigation strategies to reverse or offset the damage being done to oceans and coastal areas.
The oceans are a global resource and a global responsibility for which the U.S. can and should take a more active role. I will work actively to ensure that the U.S. ratifies the Law of the Sea Convention – an agreement supported by more than 150 countries that will protect our economic and security interests while providing an important international collaboration to protect the oceans and its resources. My administration will also strengthen regional and bilateral research and oceans preservation efforts with other Gulf Coast nations.
Again, I like that he is clear about the need for the US to engage with other countries in a collective effort – and, of course, the marine realm is one where this need is clearest. I would like to hear more about engaging directly with coastal communities – not just national governments – in developing longer-term collective governance policies and practices to really ensure the health of the oceans. That might be too much, too radical, to expect during a campaign, perhaps, but I do hope his policy team accommodates some truly out-of-the-box thinking on this – and on many of the other issues mentioned throughout this Q&A.
Our coastal areas and beaches are American treasures and are among our favorite places to live and visit. I will work to reauthorize the Coastal Zone Management Act in ways that strengthen the collaboration between federal agencies and state and local organizations. The National Marine Sanctuaries and the Oceans and Human Health Acts provide essential protection for ocean resources and support the research needed to implement a comprehensive ocean policy. These programs will be strengthened and reauthorized.
This is about the least one would expect from an Obama administration, but we really need a lot more!
10. Water. Thirty-nine states expect some level of water shortage over the next decade, and scientific studies suggest that a majority of our water resources are at risk. What policies would you support to meet demand for water resources?
Solutions to this critical problem will require close collaboration between federal, state, and local governments and the people and businesses affected. First, prices and policies must be set in a ways that give everyone a clear incentive to use water efficiently and avoid waste. Regulations affecting water use in appliances and incentives to shift from irrigated lawns to “water smart” landscapes are examples. Second, information, training, and, in some cases, economic assistance should be provided to farms and businesses that will need to shift to more efficient water practices. Many communities are offering kits to help businesses and homeowners audit their water use and find ways to reduce use. These should be evaluated, with the most successful programs expanded to other states and regions. I will establish a national plan to help high-growth regions with the challenges of managing their water supplies.
In addition, it is also critical that we undertake a concerted program of research, development, and testing of new technologies that can reduce water use.
This is rather tepid, I have to say. It all sounds good – and definitely is better than praying for rain – but it still isn’t nearly enough to deal with this silent elephant waiting in the environmental crisis room! C’mon, Mr. Obama, – where’s the sense of urgency? And, again, where’s the response to corporate take-over of water resources both in the US and worldwide? At least he does mention “regulation” instead of “free-markets” in this one…
12. Scientific Integrity. Many government scientists report political interference in their job. Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making?
This question, I think, gets the strongest response from Obama – and its a good one.
Scientific and technological information is of growing importance to a range of issues. I believe such information must be expert and uncolored by ideology.
I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best- available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees. More broadly, I am committed to creating a transparent and connected democracy, using cutting-edge technologies to provide a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America’s citizens. Policies must be determined using a process that builds on the long tradition of open debate that has characterized progress in science, including review by individuals who might bring new information or contrasting views. I have already established an impressive team of science advisors, including several Nobel Laureates, who are helping me to shape a robust science agenda for my administration.
About bloody time, right? But now you’ve got me curious about who’s on this team of science advisors, including the Nobel laureates. I hope we can find that on your campaign website, perhaps? Hmm… doesn’t look that easy to find stuff on there… and science isn’t listed separately under “issues” although technology is. But let’s get on with the point here.
In addition I will:
• Appoint individuals with strong science and technology backgrounds and unquestioned reputations for integrity and objectivity to the growing number of senior management positions where decisions must incorporate science and technology advice. These positions will be filled promptly with ethical, highly qualified individuals on a non-partisan basis;
• Establish the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will lead an interagency effort on best-in-class technologies, sharing of best practices, and safeguarding of our networks;
• Strengthen the role of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) by appointing experts who are charged to provide independent advice on critical issues of science and technology. The PCAST will once again be advisory to the president; and
• Restore the science integrity of government and restore transparency of decision- making by issuing an Executive Order establishing clear guidelines for the review and release of government publications, guaranteeing that results are released in a timely manner and not distorted by the ideological biases of political appointees. I will strengthen protection for “whistle blowers” who report abuses of these processes.
To all that, I can but say – Hear, Hear!!
13. Research. For many years, Congress has recognized the importance of science and engineering research to realizing our national goals. Given that the next Congress will likely face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in basic research in upcoming budgets?
Ok, here we go – this is one that directly affects my own academic life and bottom-line!
Federally supported basic research, aimed at understanding many features of nature— from the size of the universe to subatomic particles, from the chemical reactions that support a living cell to interactions that sustain ecosystems—has been an essential feature of American life for over fifty years. While the outcomes of specific projects are never predictable, basic research has been a reliable source of new knowledge that has fueled important developments in fields ranging from telecommunications to medicine, yielding remarkable rates of economic return and ensuring American leadership in industry, military power, and higher education. I believe that continued investment in fundamental research is essential for ensuring healthier lives, better sources of energy, superior military capacity, and high-wage jobs for our nation’s future.
Yet, today, we are clearly under-investing in research across the spectrum of scientific and engineering disciplines. Federal support for the physical sciences and engineering has been declining as a fraction of GDP for decades, and, after a period of growth of the life sciences, the NIH budget has been steadily losing buying power for the past six years. As a result, our science agencies are often able to support no more than one in ten proposals that they receive, arresting the careers of our young scientists and blocking our ability to pursue many remarkable recent advances. Furthermore, in this environment, scientists are less likely to pursue the risky research that may lead to the most important breakthroughs. Finally, we are reducing support for science at a time when many other nations are increasing it, a situation that already threatens our leadership in many critical areas of science.
Again, very good, and well thought out. This is reassuring not only because he knows specifics like the funding rates of NSF/NIH (although it is actually below the one-in-ten proposal getting funded he cites, depending upon the research discipline), but that he recognizes the real dangers of intensifying competition for scarce grants, which can stifle truly innovative, high-risk-high-gain research, particularly in an ideologically charged funding climate like the past 8 years. It is rare and good to hear a politician offer such insight about scientific creativity – this is almost getting into fictional president territory! But what are you going to do about it, Mr. Obama?
This situation is unacceptable. As president, I will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics, and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade.
Double over the next decade? Sounds good, but… is that in just current dollars, or inflation-adjusted ones? For surely, given where Bush has driven the overall economy, inflation will be a major chunk of any dollar increase in NSF/NIH funding. And how does it compare with where funding might have been if its growth hadn’t been curtailed in recent years? In other words, is this increased funding going to be more than just compensatory growth? I guess its too much to expect that kind of detail during a campaign, especially since so much of it depends upon what the US congress and senate let Obama get away with.
Sustained and predictable increases in research funding will allow the United States to accomplish a great deal. First, we can expand the frontiers of human knowledge. Second, we can provide greater support for high-risk, high-return research and for young scientists at the beginning of their careers. Third, we can harness science and technology to address the “grand challenges” of the 21st century: energy, health, food and water, national security, information technology, and manufacturing capacity.
And isn’t that what the best of American science has been about since WWII (until recently)?
Do go read the answers (generally equally thoughtful ones) to all the other questions.
The ball’s now in McCain’s court – but I’ll be very, very surprised – nay, astonished – if any of his responses are better than Obama’s. And I’m not even talking about the more “controversial” questions 7 (genetics research) and 8 (stem cells)!