Candidates Vow To Keep Politics Out Of Science McCain and Obama agree that politics has trumped science under the Bush administration, and they've vowed to restore integrity to federal science agencies. But they differ on how much federal money should go toward basic research.
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Candidates Vow To Keep Politics Out Of Science

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Candidates Vow To Keep Politics Out Of Science

Candidates Vow To Keep Politics Out Of Science

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Before the end of the hour, we will resolve this mystery: Which presidential candidate rocks out to ABBA? First, more serious political topics. The last eight years have brought multiple charges that the White House politicizes science.

John McCain and Barack Obama differ on how much federal funding should go to scientific research. But as NPR's Joe Palca reports, both candidates promised that they would restore integrity to federal science agencies.

JOE PALCA: The Bush administration has been accused of muzzling federal climate scientists, exaggerating weak evidence for a risk of breast cancer following abortion, and ignoring advice on clean air and endangered species.

Ms. MELODY BARNES (Obama Advisor): I think the last eight years have really been a war on science.

PALCA: Melody Barnes is the senior domestic policy adviser to the Obama campaign. Her counterpart in the McCain camp, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, agrees that science has been trampled by politics.

Mr. DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN (McCain Adviser): Well, I think this is a sad era in that regard.

PALCA: Each campaign says things will be different when its candidate takes office. Holtz-Eakin says John McCain's time in the Senate has made him comfortable with scientists who may have politically unwelcome views.

Mr. HOLTZ-EAKIN: He has always felt that sound science is a foundation of good public policy. He believes deeply that the science should be the science, legislators can then learn from that science and go forward and deliver good public policies.

PALCA: As for Obama, Melody Barnes says an Obama administration will be much more transparent, so it will be hard to suppress or distort scientific findings.

Ms. BARNES: So we're talking about things like videotaping various proceedings so everyone can see it, using technology to allow citizens to not only watch but also engage with the federal government so they have a better sense of what's going on.

PALCA: Both candidates have also repudiated the current administration's position on embryonic stem cells. President Bush allowed federal funding for this kind of research but placed severe limitations on it. Barnes says Obama would reverse that.

Ms. BARNES: He believes that upon being elected president of the United States that he could sign an executive order that would overturn the Bush position on stem cell research and open up the avenues considerably.

PALCA: Embryonic stem cells pose a political challenge for Senator McCain. Although Holtz-Eakin says McCain is pro-life, he has broken with the pro-life movement on embryonic stem cells. He joined Democrats in supporting a bill that would expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Holtz-Eakin says the senator still favors such legislation, but hopes new research will make it unnecessary.

Mr. HOLTZ-EAKIN: His hope is that we may reach the day when we no longer need to use embryonic stem cells as the foundation of this particular line of research, where we can move to the more recent advances and take away the tough decisions about life versus science.

PALCA: Where you begin to see significant differences between the two campaigns' attitudes on science is in funding for basic research. Senator Obama has reached out to a high-powered group of scientists for advice on policy. Melody Barnes says before the Bush administration took office, the federal government provided robust support for American science, giving American high-tech industries a competitive advantage.

Ms. BARNES: That's not where we are right now. Senator Obama believes that we need to double scientific research funding so that we can take advantage of the enormous talent in the United States, and we can regain our global competitive edge.

PALCA: But McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin says there just isn't enough money to make everybody happy.

Mr. HOLTZ-EAKIN: Doubling is a nice, fun number for political purposes; it's clean, it's smooth. But it doesn't reflect the balancing of relative priorities. There will be competing demands for funds. These are scarce taxpayer dollars that come from American families who work hard to generate them. And good scientists should make the case for their research money. And the senator will be happy to listen to that case and fund appropriately. But to promise everybody everything is not really laying it on the line.

PALCA: Maybe so, but for now Obama adviser Melody Barnes says you have to invest in science to keep this country strong.

Ms. BARNES: We recognize science as being a tool to help solve many of the problems before us. I think that's a different perspective, and putting your money where your mouth is.

PALCA: Both candidates agree that whatever money is available for science in the next four years, it will be spent with fewer political restraints.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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