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Future Of Basic Research In US: Obama vs McCain

By Sukant Khurana
04 November, 2008
The roles of technological innovations in the progress of a society are usually well
appreciated, though role of basic research goes considerably underappreciated. For my
creed of scientists, Pasteur’s advocacy that there are no such things as applied
sciences, only applications of science, holds as an aphorism but the present policies or
the lack of them, are pushing such species of scientists closer to the edge of extinction.
Despite heavy investments, Nixon’s war on Cancer, which funded huge medical
complexes, accomplished almost nothing, until there was a significant accumulation of
basic knowledge due to funding of basic cell biology by the mid 90s. Without advances
in the basic knowledge there will be an eventual end to novel innovations and the
growth of the two are mutually interdependent. I do not want to diminish the importance
of technological innovation in any way. I am only trying to make a case for basic
science. It is important to remind both the general public and their representatives that
in the double whammy times of an economically draining war and an economic
recession that investing in only the “proletariat sciences” with immediate payback in
terms weapon technology, fuel efficient vehicles, non-conventional energy and
pharmaceutical discovery etc, may generate some short term payoffs but it will be a
fatal blow to the long-term development and global competitiveness. There have been
some economic arguments against investing in science, especially in slumber economic
times, like British investments in the development of nuclear power plants, passenger
supersonic plane and computer technology from 50s to 70s. Those critics forget that
they are referring to a poorly executed and financially draining technological
development and not basic research.
Times of Bush Jr. have been good for space research and war related technological
innovation but many other scientists have been forced to move away from basic
research or give a “translational twist” to their basic research. There seems to be an
unending war not just on Iraq but also on basic university based research by our
beloved Texan homeboy. The question is not whether this tide will slow or stop, but will it
actually turn?
GOP candidate, John McCain did not have a detailed science plan on his website, in
fact not even a detailed education plan, until very recently. This is quite surprising as he
has number of advisors in this campaign, like Eileen Weiser of the National Assessment
Governing Board and Phil Handy, former chairman of the Florida State Board of
Education. He will undoubtedly be good for NASA, as he strongly supports manned
missions to Mars. Going by his record he is likely to be good for nuclear and alternative
fuels, internet access to connect schools, encouraging skilled people to work in the US
and may have a somewhat clearer idea of education than Bush. Nonetheless, he has
hardly ever bothered to talk about basic research and seems to be stuck in defense-
application centric idea of science. I am not sure if he has an understanding of the
differences in basic science and technology. To his credit, his stand on stem cell
research, where unlike many of GOP leaders he actually voted yes on expansion of this
line of research in 2004, represents a more open attitude to science than most
Republicans. Even though, support for stem cell research and teaching evolution are
small parts of scientific enterprise but they serve as a good yardstick to evaluate a
candidate’s outlook on science as whole. In my opinion, McCain will stop doing more
damage to basic research and will slow the George Bush’s war on science but is
unlikely to completely stop it. If he is elected president, I will hope for his best health
because like almost all scientists, I will not like to see his running mate Sarah Palin to
head white house. She is not just some uninformed politician who mocks fruit fly
research and is opposed to stem cell research; she represents the pinnacle of anti-
intellectual culture. Bush was just cool, with being uniformed; she flaunts it in your face.
The day she is President of USA, I know I am buying a one way ticket to my home
country India, because I know, it will be beginning of the end of USA being a
powerhouse of scientific innovation.
The annual cost of Iraq war is many times the annual budget for all research and
development, including military research, space programs and all federal support for
technological innovation. Support for basic research, which constitutes a small fraction
of research and development budget is easily dwarfed by few days cost of war in Iraq.
Mid-east policy of the Democrats is likely to leave more money for research and
development in coming years.
In the dimension of technological innovation Obama has specific policy statements and
good track record and of supporting nanotechnology, biotechnology, alternative energy,
drug R &D, supercomputing, space exploration and opposing Yucca mountain. Except
for his position on Constellation program I cannot think of any specific policy statement
that has been criticized by a significant section of scientific community. He recently
came under fire for proposing delays in the manned moon to mars program and putting
money for educating future scientists. In my opinion even on constellation program,
Obama seems to be on the correct path, as in the present economic times proposing
cornucopian budget are either childish fantasies or election rhetoric. Unmanned
missions can give us similar wealth of information as manned mission for now and one
needs to prioritize funding in economically slumber times. Though the sentimentality
associated with NASA, due to its role in cold war times may not fare well with Obama’s
pragmatic plan. Obama wants to make the R&D tax credit permanent. Obama explicitly
recognizes the need for university based research and has proposed to add $42B to
university-based R&D (October 2006). He wants to double the federal funding for
scientific research, including NIH and at multiple occasions has clearly emphasized the
need for investing in basic science. Based on his fact sheet on science (downloadable
from his website) and his recent book “Audacity of Hope”, he seems to be one of the
few politicians to understand the two aspects of science, basic sciences and technology
and importance of both. In his book Obama talks of need of national sense of urgency
for making changes in science education and research. His detailed treatment in his fact
sheet for science, for preparing and training future scientists from high school to
graduate school is quite commendable. His introduction of, and aggressive support for,
very good embryonic stem cell legislation in the Illinois State Senate is also an
indication of the shape of things to come, if he leads this country.
I would have liked to see more time frame of changes in funding policies on Obama’s
web site but overall, it seems that his academic background has informed him well of
differences between basic research and technology and necessity of both. Based on
policy document and rhetoric he seems to be many times better for scientific research
than John McCain. And scientific research holds the keys to US and whole world’s
future. If Obama wins the white house and sticks to most of his promises, one can hope
for a complete reversal of the damage done by Bush. I will hope that every American
understands the need for science and education and will go out to vote for a better
future of USA and the rest of the world.