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Finally… Answers! September 16, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in politics.

Glory be! Check it — Obama and McCain finally said something about science (first saw it in this article)! I think we all had secret fantasies about a science themed debate, but given our current situation that isn’t very likely (holy dropping-like-a-stone Batman!!).

So, how do they stack up? Here is my totally biased opinion.

  • Innovation & Research (I’ve lumped the two together since their answers are the same) – Obama. First, I have to say Obama’s answer is a lot better than last time I tried to look at this. It is as if Clinton’s advisors went to work for Obama – or Obama now had enough time to flesh things out. Much better — specific numbers! Sweet! I like Obama’s idea of broadband access – get individuals all up to speed and working, including real increases in funding for basic research. I like McCain’s idea of a science advisor (not cabinet position, Obama later on mentions a committee to fill the same role). I didn’t understand McCain’s “more citizen-government” dialogs on science comment. McCain was still light on the details as he was last time, which is was a bit of a disappointment. Obama talks about doubling the research budget in 10 years.
  • Climate Change – McCain with a slight edge, but I’m not comfortable. Both are in favor of Cap&Trade with almost identical goals by 2050 (I understand each C&T system is slightly different). I like McCain’s idea of beefing up CAFE – but I’d wish he would say more about how much he would raise the standards (or if he would at all). Obama is on the right track in working with the UN on this problem – this is a global problem, not something we can solve within our own boarders. McCain then has all sorts of little things – $300M for the person that gets the new battery, a small amount of funding per year for clean coal, tax write-off for R&D salaries (which I really like, despite its potential problems), and $5K tax credit for purchaser of a zero emissions vehicle. These are all very individualistic proposals, other than the R&D proposal. I’d rather see grant money for peer reviewed research into these same topics – and a stable source of funding. 300M prize just doesn’t do it. However, at least McCain has proposed something here.
  • Energy – Obama. Obama proposes $15B/year for 10 years but he needs more for the list of topics he has proposed I think (and probably longer than 10 years). The community can’t absorb that much right away so the turn on will be slower – perhaps that will make it enough money. Both talk about more nuclear power – but I wish McCain would address the fact that that can’t be the only answer (he does, to his credit, in other places). McCain has some muddled text so he can say he was against clean air tax credit (for wind farms, etc.), but would really vote for it in the future.
  • Education – Slightly in favor for Obama. This is a little hard for me to tell. Obama would support research into improving education techniques. I’m naturally strongly in favor of that (that is what my wife does). Both candidates support teacher retraining, and continued learning programs – which I think is essential, especially if there is ongoing research into improving teaching. He would have an office in the Dept. of Education that would coordinate all the science, math, etc. education in one place. Given programs exist in the NSF, DOE, NASA, and NOAA, that seems to make sense. But there is my one problem with Obama’s answer: note that currently the hard science folks have these education programs (DOE, NSF, NASA, and NOAA). I don’t really trust the Dept. of Education to do this right.
  • National Security – Obama, but… My main problem is I don’t know this field well. However, reading the responses McCain was big on rederic and light on specific proposals. Obama wasn’t much better (DoD double in basic research funding, but no time frame, bring back DARPA).
  • Pandemics & Biosecurity – Tie. Both have similar proposals, but other than Obama’s 10B/year on health records there were no specifics (and the 10B/year is a byproduct of trying to improve our health care system).
  • Genetics Research – Tie. Both support genetically modified foods (which I support). Both mention the mapping of the genome (see this article for a fascinating counter take on it – who will be right? Wait for the paper!). Neither addresses cloning or other out-there things, but I think that is in part because there is currently a consensus in the US.
  • Stem Cells – Obama. Ugh. It is quite possible that the two of them have the exact same policy, but for the life of me – McCain was speaking in code words. Obama was direct and I could understand them. McCain… not so much. I also very much liked that Obama called embryonic stem cells the “gold standard” – something I’ve heard from medical researchers before. The other interesting thing is Obama talked about ethical guidelines for stem cell research – once you have a line of stem cells are there any ethical issues to the research other than the usual “do no evil” standard ethical guidelines? I liked that he was drawing his ethical guidelines from those developed by a committee of scientists rather than politicos.
  • Ocean Health – Obama by a hair. Obama’s answer is similar to his climate change answer; mentions working with other countries and while he mentions no specific research proposals he does mention the agency in the US that drives the research, NOAA. McCain, while at the same time saying some of the same motherhood, seems to use this as an excuse to campaign for the Great Lakes region.
  • Water – Obama. McCain says it is a complex issue. Obama talks about re-pricing water to make sure it is treated as the valuable resource that it is – which I agree with. This will have huge effects on our farm industry and thus our food prices and Obama does not fully address this (he does talk about helping farmers re-jigger for this new world). This is going to be a very tough nut to crack.
  • Space – Obama. BUT HOLY COW – are we getting through!? Check this out from McCain: “Although the general view in the research community is that human exploration is not an efficient way to increase scientific discoveries given the expense and logistical limitations, the role of manned space flight goes well beyond the issue of scientific discovery and is reflection of national power and pride.” Wow! Wow! That was very gratifying for me to read. However, his response seemed to rest on the argument: this is how we prove to the world and ourselves that we are a great nation. Exploration is good, but that program is sucking up too many of our resources – especially now as we are not as flush as we would like to be! McCain also talks about doing science on the ISS… I just don’t see it. Obama talks about continuing the space exploration program, but explicitly mentions research – and explicitly getting NASA back to doing things like climate research.
  • Scientific Integrity – Tie. Both talk about policy makers should be using the latest and best results, and policy should not be pushing science or muzzling results, etc. Both talk about putting technically minded people in positions that require technical know-how.
  • Health – Tie, but I’m not impressed. I’m guessing the people writing this were running out of steam at this point (as am I). This issue is too important to be what they wrote – and both have extensive health care policy papers. Both basically said they need to increase research. Cool.

Wow – that was a long posting. How  many of you are still reading!? And reading there statements and writing this makes this one of the longest posts in preparation I’ve ever written (almost 45 minutes). If you don’t agree with my answers — post in the comments, read the raw material yourself, etc.!!! πŸ™‚

I’m slowly recovering from the move back to Seattle. I finally have Internet at my home! I swear my posting will slowly pick up as I continue to prepare for class.



1. Dave Bacon - September 16, 2008

Am I the only one which was disappointed with the way the energy question was phrased? Maybe it was just shocking to read responses to the energy question which didn’t even mention off-shore drilling.

2. Gordon Watts - September 16, 2008

The phrasing didn’t particularly bother me – you mean that they included the word “environment” specifically? Now that I think about it, I agree it is odd that neither metioned off shore drilling. But I’d say shocking was a bit strong. πŸ˜‰

3. Gordon Watts - September 16, 2008

Let me rephrase — why was it shocking that it wasn’t mentioned?

4. Andy - September 16, 2008

Nice post!
By the way, I did come across a piece of “science” that mattered from the space-station. A guy who was interested in how things like sugar, salt would dissolve in water in 0g tried shaking those substances around in ziploc bags full of water. He noticed that some of them would clump together in funny ways before it dissolved. Turned out the crystals were being ionized slightly during collisions with other crystals (like rubbing a balloon on your head), which made them stick. This ended up solving a 50-year-old mystery of how ice and dust particles in the early outer solar system started clumping together to form asteroids and planets!

5. gordonwatts - September 16, 2008

Interesting — what about gravity prevents them from ionizing, I wonder? I don’t normally think of gravity having an that strong of an effect at such short length scales.

6. Dave Bacon - September 16, 2008

Hm, did I write that badly worded sentence? I was just a bit amused that off shore oil drilling didn’t come up considering how hard McCain hit Obama with that same topic recently. Of course a good politician knows his audience…

Here’s an interesting opinion about the uncontroversial nature of the questions: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=28

7. Andy - September 17, 2008

In gravity, the stuff just sinks to the bottom of the container before it has time to clump up.

8. Gordon Watts - September 17, 2008

Riiiight. Short length scales or long time scales! Nice!

9. Is there an upside? « Life as a Physicist - September 17, 2008

[…] in the number of students interested in our science and releated programs. Reading about the candidates positions on science got me to thinking about […]

10. Lisa Smith - September 20, 2008

How on earth did you read the complete candidates’ statements and compose the blog in 45 minutes?? Were you on speed? πŸ™‚ It would take me forever to sort out all my thoughts. And each time I revisit the statements I have to adapt my response…

In the conservative tradition, McCain tends to focus on America and how to manipulate the capitalist machine in order to get results. That’s not necessarily bad, and could be a very smart thing to do, if it invokes immediate and effective change (and wouldn’t it be a wonderful bonus if a new industry sprang from technical
innovation that could reset our doomed economy and restore a middle class?). I do believe that a stronger America makes for a better global participant, as long as America can keep its hubris in check. Ha ha…

11. Terry - September 20, 2008

My trouble with comparing science policies of the two presidential
candidates stems from the characters of the two.

Obama, it seems to me, is clearly in charge of his campaign. He demonstrates that in the way he talks and the way he behaved at the Dems Convention. So I believe that the writings on science policy, although put together by experts, are probably known by Obama to a reasonable extent. Thus, there is a chance that, if elected, those policies will form a basis for some action, if we are lucky that some catastrophes don’t preempt all the attention of the next administration for several years.

McCain, it seems to me, is not in charge of his campaign. He is “handled” by advisers with a tendency to follow Karl Rove’s tactics. Hence I don’t believe that the science policy, perhaps even any of the policy statements, have any connection with any of the leaders of the campaign and thus will not percolate into the next administration if McCain is elected. The behavior of the Bush administration might still provide the best forecast of a McCain government although McCain is very different from Bush.

So I don’t believe the McCain statement on science enough to take it seriously.

12. Lisa Smith - September 20, 2008

I had a similar feeling as Terry for both sides, which made any instance of actionable plans and specifics in their statements all the more compelling, especially considering the time-sensitive nature of some of these issues. Details and realistic numbers gave me a sense that the wheels are already in contact with the road, whereas broad brushstrokes and heroic language give me the sense that no matter who is in charge, any kind of measurable results are not going to be seen during a new administration. I’d rather see average ideas come to fruition, than lofty proposals that go nowhere because everyone is too busy admiring their ideas (and ideals) instead of executing them.

13. Gordon Watts - September 20, 2008

Lisa – since my parents are reading this blog… no, no speed involved. I actually had to write a table in OneNote and then review it – so it went fairly fast. Also, each candidate started with a bunch of words about how important it was for America and how much they had done in the past. I mostly skipped over that — that makes the text a lot shorter. In many cases my notes are only one or two lines long for the candidates 40 or 50 lines… there is probably a lesson in there. πŸ™‚

The problem I have with McCain and that approach is you really need both. There is a lot of research that is very long term – 20 years – especially medical research and research like the sort of things that are done in our physcis department. Companies aren’t going to fund that – it is too far removed from their bottom line. So gov’t has a role it has to play. Also, I find his statements “we will use the reduction of earmarks to fund…” total bull. Everyone has said similar things (we will cut waste…) and no one has managed to really change the way gov’t works. It is the nature of the beast. It is populist, and sounds good, but… no. On Obama’s side he seems to sidestep the question of $$ totally, so he isn’t doing any better.

Terry… err Dad… as I mentioned in a private email – I think there are others things that are on the candidate’s web sites that both help and hinder what they said in reply to this set of questions. I think Obama’s other statements support what he is saying here and some of McCain’s statements do not support what he is saying. I also think it would be crazy to have Obama or McCain really know the details. Obama should know some of what we do because he represents the state that has Fermilab, but in general neither of them have time. So it is important to see what his advisors think. McCain is probably weak on this subject, as Obama may be on others, so the handers become more important. Also, are you reacting to a gut feeling? πŸ™‚ I would say look at past actions to determine future ones…

And Lisa – I agree. When it was Obama v Clinton, Clinton seemed to be the detail woman. I loved it – reading them it made me feel like she had people that had thought and understood the issue. Obama is now starting to show the same traits, though not nearly as wonky. McCain managed to do it in one or two of his answers (as I noted in the post), but I don’t think his advisors have really hit the same level. My impression is that campaign is run a little more loosely than the Obama campaign.

14. Kill Off The Department of Energy?!? Crazy talk! « Life as a Physicist - September 27, 2008

[…] and all children must pass tests, etc. I have my doubts about their ability to execute a coherent science program, but there is a lot of infrastructure that must be taken care of to keep our education system […]

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