Presenting science questions to John McCain and Barack Obama

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Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Science Debate 2008 – an effort spearheaded by a half-dozen voters concerned about the state of American science – posed 14 questions to the major parties’ presidential candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.

The queries were culled from more than 3,400 suggestions offered by 38,000 contributors, including Nobel laureates, university presidents, government officials and professional organizations.

Obama submitted his responses in August, and McCain answered this week. Excerpts are printed below, with more to come next Saturday. The candidates’ complete replies are online at


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

Obama: 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. We will increase research grants for early career researchers to keep young scientists entering these fields. We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies. And we will invest in the breakthrough research we need to meet our energy challenges and to transform our defense programs.

McCain: 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 globe. I am committed to streamlining burdensome regulations and effectively protecting American intellectual property in the United States and around the globe.

What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change – a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research?

Obama: … Specifically, I will implement a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. I will start reducing emissions immediately by establishing strong annual reduction targets with an intermediate goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

… I will also create a Technology Transfer Program dedicated to exporting climate-friendly technologies, including green buildings, clean coal and advanced automobiles, to developing countries to help them combat climate change.


McCain: I will institute a new cap-and-trade system that over time will change the dynamic of our energy economy. By the year 2012, we will seek a return to 2005 levels of emissions, by 2020, a return to 1990 levels, and so on until we have achieved at least a reduction of 60% below 1990 levels by the year 2050.

… I am also committed to investing $2 billion every year for the next 15 years on clean coal technologies, to unlock the potential of America’s oldest and most abundant resource. And we will issue a Clean Car Challenge to automakers, in the form of a tax credit to the American people, for every automaker who can sell a zero-emission vehicle. We will commit up to a $5,000 tax credit to each and every customer who buys that car.

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?

Obama: Overseas, I will launch a Shared Security Partnership that invests $5 billion over three 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 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… . 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.

McCain: First, we must limit the spread of disease to the United States. Second, we must limit the spread of disease within the United States… . Third, we must mitigate symptoms of the disease and minimize suffering and death with effective treatments and countermeasures… . Similar response capabilities would be necessary if a deliberate biological attack were to occur.


… We must fund research and development of new medicines and vaccines and make sure that we have adequate stockpiles of countermeasures and a robust and well thought out distribution plan in case crisis strikes.

What is the right policy balance between the benefits of genetic advances and their potential risks?

Obama: I have been a longtime supporter of the recently passed Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act. In addition, concerned about the premature introduction of genetic testing into the public domain without appropriate oversight, I introduced the Genomics and Personalized Medicine Act of 2007 aimed at ensuring the safety and accuracy of such testing.

Advances in the genetic engineering of plants have provided enormous benefits to American farmers. I believe we can continue to modify plants safely with new genetic methods, abetted by stringent tests for environmental and health effects and by stronger regulatory oversight guided by the best available scientific advice.

McCain: As genetic research becomes increasingly deployed, the need to ensure privacy of human records will become all the more essential, as will be the rigor to ensure there is no genetic discrimination. The scientific potential and ethical issues associated with genetics are important and complex enough that I will actively seek out the wise counsel of experts about how to ensure that we are best serving the needs of the American people.

Genetic research can already provide real assistance for those in some of the poorest regions who lack access to adequate food sources… . Our aid programs should help focus on research into higher-yielding crops and make investments in infrastructure that will help farmers increase their yields and deliver their products to market.