The folks at ScienceDebate2008 pushed hard during the primaries to have the candidates address science policy. Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum from Scienceblogs The Intersection were among the leaders in this movement. They didn’t succeed in getting a debate then, but now with the field down to the finalists, they have received a response from Barack Obama to 14 questions culled from over 3400 submitted by the 38,000 signers of the ScienceDebate initiative (we were proud to be among them; they include nearly every major American science organization, the presidents of nearly every major American university, and dozens of Nobel laureates and top American CEOs). The questions are the product of a broad base of America’s scientists across the entire political spectrum, among them Scientists and Engineers for America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Academies and the Council on Competitiveness, among others.
McCain has yet to respond. Here are a few of Obama’s detailed answers to questions of special interest here (you can find answers to all 14 at sciencedebate2008.com):
6. Pandemics and Biosecurity. Some estimates suggest that if H5N1 Avian Flu becomes a pandemic it could kill more than 300 million people. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from global pandemics or deliberate biological attacks?
It’s time for a comprehensive effort to tackle bio-terror. We know that the successful deployment of a biological weapon–whether it is sprayed into our cities or spread through our food supply–could kill tens of thousands of Americans and deal a crushing blow to our economy.
Overseas, I will launch a Shared Security Partnership that invests $5 billion over 3 years to forge an international intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure to take down terrorist networks. I will also strengthen U.S. intelligence collection overseas to identify and interdict would-be bioterrorists before they strike and expand the U.S. government’s bioforensics program for tracking the source of any biological weapon. I will work with the international community to make any use of disease as a weapon declared a crime against humanity.
And to ensure our country is prepared should such an event occur, we must provide our public health system across the country with the surge capacity to confront a crisis and improve our ability to cope with infectious diseases. I will invest in new vaccines and technology to detect attacks and to trace them to their origin, so that we can react in a timely fashion. I have pledged to invest $10 billion per year over the next 5 years in electronic health information systems to not only improve routine health care, but also ensure that these systems will give health officials the crucial information they need to deploy resources and save lives in an emergency. I will help hospitals form collaborative networks to deal with sudden surges in patients and will ensure that the U.S. has adequate supplies of medicines, vaccines, and diagnostic tests and can get these vital products into the hands of those who need them.
We also have to expand local and state programs to ensure that they have the resources to respond to these disasters. I will work to strengthen the federal government’s partnership with local and state governments on these issues by improving the mechanisms for clear communication, eliminating redundant programs, and building on the key strengths possessed by each level of government. I introduced legislation which would have provided funding for programs in order to enhance emergency care systems throughout the country.
I will build on America’s unparalleled talent and advantage in STEM fields and the powerful insights into biological systems that are emerging to create new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tests and to manufacture these vital products much more quickly and efficiently than is now possible. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has failed to take full advantage of the Bioshield initiative. Because of the unpredictability of the mode of biological attack, I will stress the need for broad-gauged vaccines and drugs and for more agile and responsive drug development and production systems. This effort will strengthen the U.S. biotech and pharmaceutical industry and create high-wage jobs.
[Our comment: Not horrible but not that great either. Obama gives too much credence to the scary terrorist scenario and not enough to Nature's terrorism. He mentions strengthening the public health system but only in passing. I'd give this response a grade of B minus to C plus.]
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?
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.
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.
[Our comment: The right ideas. A lot will depend upon how tightly his administration would control and manage information. His campaign has been impressively disciplined, which is great for political campaigns but might not be so good for science policy. We'll have to see (and I hope we get a chance to see, as I intend to vote for Obama. This doesn't mean I agree with many of his ideas, many of which I consider to be right of center. This man is no liberal. Consider the alternative. Four more years of the last eight years. This gets a grade of B plus, mainly because with Bush/McCain in the class I'm grading on the curve.]
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?
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.
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.
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.
[Our comment: I've spent my career in basic research so naturally I think this says it just right. I won't profit from it professionally because I am too senior (in every sense of the word), but it is what needs to be done. I expect to be able to profit from it personally in increased quality of life in my old age and a better world for my children and grandchildren. Grade: A.]
14. Health. Americans are increasingly concerned with the cost, quality and availability of health care. How do you see science, research and technology contributing to improved health and quality of life?
Americans have good reasons to be proud of the extraordinary role that medical science has had in combating disease, here and throughout the world, over the past century. Work sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), other government agencies, and our pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries has produced many vaccines, drugs, and hormones that have improved the quality of life, extended life expectancy, and reduced the dire consequences of many serious illnesses and disabilities. These advances include methods for preventing and treating coronary artery disease and stroke, which have reduced mortality rates by two-thirds; new drugs and antibodies that allow us to effectively treat certain cancers; anti-viral agents that allow most patients with AIDS to control their disease; drugs that often help make severe psychiatric illnesses manageable; and new vaccines that are reducing the incidence of virus-related cancers; and minimally invasive surgery techniques that reduce hospitalizations, complications, and costs. We can expect much more from the exciting biomedical research now underway. For example, we can foresee medical care that will allow physicians to tailor care to individual patients, matching therapies to those most likely to benefit.
However, today our citizens have understandable concerns about their ability to afford the care they need, especially when our underlying system of paying for health care is broken. We spend more on health care per capita than people of other countries, yet lower income groups continue to suffer significant disparities in both access to care and health outcomes. Without major changes, costs will continue to increase. Our population is aging, many cancers and chronic disorders remain difficult to treat, and there are continuing threats of new and re-emerging infectious diseases.
It’s wrong that America’s health care system works better for insurance and drug companies than it does for average Americans, who face skyrocketing health care costs. My plan makes health care more secure and affordable by strengthening employer-based coverage, protecting patients’ ability to choose their own doctors, and saving families $2,500 dollars by requiring insurance companies to cover prevention and limiting excessive insurance company charges. My plan covers everybody by requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions, providing tax credits to small businesses and working families, and covering all uninsured children.
These are difficult problems, and science and technology can solve only some of them. The effectiveness of medical care can be improved, and its costs can be reduced, by greater emphasis on best practices, electronic medical records, hospital safety, preventive strategies, and improved public health surveillance. The increased investments I support for medical research at the NIH may yield discoveries that reduce the cost of drug development, and we may produce new methods to prevent diseases that are costly to treat. But efforts to control costs also should make greater use of the tools for prevention and clinical management that already exist; enlist more effective participation of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as the NIH; and encourage investments in healthcare and health research by the private and not-for-profit sectors.
Overall, I am committed to three major tasks that will be necessary to confront widespread concerns about the nation’s health: provision of healthcare plans to all of our citizens; comprehensive efforts to make our health care system more cost-efficient; and continued biomedical research to understand diseases more thoroughly and find better ways to prevent and treat them.
[Our comment: Better than nothing (the McCain plan) but not much. Any health care plan that depends on private insurance is doomed. For the same reason, Clinton's plan was marginally better but had the same fatal flaw. This is not bold but weak. Grading on the curve again it gets a grade of C. But in any class with decent students it would flunk.]
Of course I will vote for Obama. What’s the alternative? Voting for an anti-choice business as usual military force solves all worse-than-Bush candidate who is a 72 year old cancer survivor with a young running mate who is militantly and aggressively anti-choice, believes it’s OK to teach creationism in science class, is the governor of the only state whose wild life includes polar bears but strongly opposes considering their dwindling numbers endangered because it might be bad for oil companies and who favors despoiling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for their profit even though it won’t contribute at all to solving the nation’s energy woes?
I don’t think so.