Science Funding: What McCain and Obama have to say

John McCain has just answered a questionnaire by Scientists and Engineers for America (Obama did so several weeks ago).

You should read the answers yourself, but as someone who expects to be involved in American science for the next number of decades, I found McCain’s disappointing.

Obama begins his answer to the first question about American innovation this way:

Ensuring that the U.S. continues to lead the world in science and technology will be a central priority for my administration. Our talent for innovation is still the envy of the world, but we face unprecedented challenges that demand new approaches. For example, the U.S. annually imports $53 billion more in advanced technology products than we export. China is now the world’s number one high technology exporter. This competitive situation may only worsen over time because the number of U.S. students pursuing technical careers is declining. The U.S. ranks 17th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering; we were in third place thirty years ago.

This reassures me that he understand the problem. McCain, on the other hand, merely says “I have a broad and cohesive vision for the future of American innovation. My policies will provide broad pools of capital, low taxes and incentives for research in America, a commitment to a skilled and educated workforce, and a dedication to opening markets around the world.”

Solutions to our Problems.

OK. Maybe McCain isn’t as good at setting up the problem as Obama is. What does his broad and cohesive vision look like? Most of his proposals sound nice, but it’s hard to tell what exactly he means. For instance, he wants to “utilize the nation’s science and technology infrastructure to develop a framework for economic growth both domestically and globally.”

Sounds good. How? (One way might be to make the R&D tax credit permanent, something which Obama supports but which McCain strangely neglects to mention.)

Other parts of the boilerplate sound like he is merely suggesting we do what we are already doing. I am refering to points like “Fund basic and applied research in new and emerging fields such as nanotechnology and biotechnology…”

Hmmm. We already do that. Maybe he intends to increase funding for such projects, but he doesn’t say.

McCain also says he has supported and will continue to support increasing federal funding for research. However, he doesn’t say how much. Federal funding has increased over the last few years. It’s just not keeping up with inflation. So hazy talk about “increasing funding” may well be meaningless.

One of the few concrete proposals McCain makes is to “eliminate wasteful earmarks in order to allocate funds for science and technology investments.” Sounds good. There are $16 billion of earmarks in the 2008 federal budget. The budget for the National Institutes of Health alone is $28 billion. So even if all the “earmarks savings” were spent on science — and he has other things he wants to do with that money — we couldn’t even get close to doubling science funding, as Obama has proposed.

Does Obama do any better?

If I find McCain’s answers discouraging, Obama’s are heartening. Although he uses fewer words than McCain, those words are packed with specific proposals, such as doubling federal funding for basic research over the period of 10 years and making the R&D tax credit permanent.

Within the general increase in science funding, Obama shows again that he, or at least his advisors, actually know something about the state of American science, in that he singles out the need to “increase research grants for early-career researchers to keep young scientists entering these fields.”

The problem that he is referring to is that the current average age of a scientist receiving their first NIH grant is over 40 years old. While the truism that scientists do their best work prior to the age of 40 is less true for the biomedical researchers NIH funds than it is for mathematicians and physicists, this funding trend is still worrisome.

While on that topic, out of all NIH 2007 applications in for a new RO1 grant — the bread-and-butter grant that funds many or most large labs — only 19% were funded. While we certainly want money to go to the best projects, it’s important to remember that when a scientist doesn’t get a grant, she doesn’t just go back to our day job. Science is her day job. So she has to apply again. With 81% of scientists applying to the NIH failing to get funding each year, that means many, many burdensome reapplications — taking time and money away from doing actual science.

All that is just another reason that significantly increasing federal funding for research is crucial.

I won’t go into detail about Obama’s other policies, but I found them similarly encouraging and, frankly, a breath of fresh air.

The Candidate with Vision and Expertise

When Obama first began campaigning, some people wondered what the substance behind his vision was. As I read through his responses to this questionnaire, I was struck time and time again that (1) he seemed to really understand and appreciate what challenges I face in my daily attempts to do science, and (2) he had concrete plans to address those issues.

McCain’s, answers, on the other hand, rang hollow and out of touch.

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