Obama on science

Stein alerts me to Obama answering the science debate questions, and provides some of his own commentary. T’ Intersection reports, but wimps out of any analysis. The answers are here. So, looking only at those bits that interest me:

1. Innovation… What policies will you support to ensure that America remains the world leader in innovation?

Obama’s answer to this (see below) is reasonable: increase spending on research etc. But this sits very oddly with his restatement of the problem:

…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.

China is (if it really is; I’m somewhat unconvinced) the worlds #1 because of cheap labour re-selling other peoples ideas; not because they spend lots on research. Ergo, Obama’s proposed solutions won’t address his version of the problem. What worries me is that neither he nor his PR folk have noticed that. Are they incapable of coherent thought? Its not promising.

My administration 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….

2. Climate Change. 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. OK, I think thats pretty good. No quibbling: climate change is happening and its our fault and we should do something and not wait for others. Excellent. I’m pretty sure that whatever he tried to do would get mired in the political system, so it probably doesn’t matter too much exactly what he wants to do. 80% below 1990 by 2050 is probably overkill, he’s been talking to Hansen too much, but its the right direction. He wants to do it by cap-and-trade rather than carbon tax, which I weakly feel is the wrong way to go, but I don’t have strong opinions on that aspect yet.

I will start reducing emissions immediately by establishing strong annual reduction targets with an intermediate goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 OK, annual targets is nice, but it also needs a mechanism – just a target by itself is meaningless.

5. National Security. Again stresses research, which is nice. Would have been bold to have stated an aim to reduce the overall security budget, but thats probably asking too much.

11. Space I will establish a robust and balanced civilian space program… which is perhaps conceeding that the present programme is fragile and unbalanced; a good start. But he ducks the can-we-afford-it part of the question.

13. Research Again, good on research spending, but no hint of what needs to be cut to pay for it, or where the money is coming from.


  1. #1 Eli Rabett

    Research in China is now world class and they have a LOT of financial support from the government and industry but I repeat myself. Wake up and go to some conferences.

    [Could be, I may be behind the times. Where is this a repeat from? And do you too think that their world-class research is driving their export? -W]

  2. #2 Lab Lemming

    What Eli said- China has used their cheap labor to reverse engineer everyone else’s goodies, and are now capable of making their own.

    Have a look at wind turbine design and construction, for example.

    [Well come on, I’m lazy. If you know of links, provide them… -W]

  3. #3 jayh

    Something about his mindset. When asked about threats of avian flu as well as other epidemic threats, he obsessed with the relatively small risk of ‘terrorism’ (including ‘tracking those responsible’) and did not directly address the far more likely threat of natural epidemics. Playing the same GWB fear game

  4. #4 Brian Schmidt

    “OK, annual targets is nice, but it also needs a mechanism – just a target by itself is meaningless.”

    That’s what cap-and-trade is for.

  5. #5 Hank Roberts


    Just interesting to note the specific sites posting the reports.

  6. #6 Eli Rabett

    Read the journals, go to conferences. At least in my fields increasingly important work is coming out of China. I’m old enough that I saw the same trend with Europe and Japan starting in the 60s and smart enough to recognize it.

    Among the markers are in the early part of the wave you see many people coming to the US for doctoral studies. Alot stay, some become faculty/research scientists in the US. As capital investment floods into their home countries, they begin to get offers to go back and a significant number do because the opportunities are greater at home and, to an extent, they are still somewhat alienated from the US culture, want their kids to grow up at home, etc.

    You know that the wave is really on its way when you see US born citizens moving in the other direction.

  7. #7 Eli Rabett

    Eli asks, Science delivers, in v321 pp 915 (2008) an article by Lewis M. Branscomb

    “When global corporations are polled and asked what are the most attractive country locations for new R&D facilities, China ranks higher than the United States by 61% to 41% with India in third place with 29% (2). All other countries come in at or behind Japan at 14%. The share of value added in China’s domestic output of all industries that derive from the high technology segment of the economy quadrupled over 8 years to 16% in 2005 (6). At that value China’s world share of value added exceeded both the UK and Germany and is just shy of Japan’s. ”

    [I don’t understand 61% to 41% but I get the idea. However, I’m not sure what def of “high tech” is being used here, and I’m not yet convinced that it relates strongly to basic research -W]

    It’s really impressive how the Bunny gets folks to do his work.

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