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New President, Please

Few voters in next week's US presidential election will embrace absolutely everything that either candidate stands for, or, for that matter, reject absolutely everything. Nevertheless, a change must be made, judged on a few key issues. The most pressing issues include the quagmire that is Iraq, national security, healthcare provision, and the economy. But science should not be too far behind, and anyone with the best interests of science at heart will have no hesitation in selecting John Kerry o

By | October 25, 2004

Few voters in next week's US presidential election will embrace absolutely everything that either candidate stands for, or, for that matter, reject absolutely everything. Nevertheless, a change must be made, judged on a few key issues. The most pressing issues include the quagmire that is Iraq, national security, healthcare provision, and the economy. But science should not be too far behind, and anyone with the best interests of science at heart will have no hesitation in selecting John Kerry over George Bush.

Over the past four years President Bush's administration has weakened science in the United States across the board. Scientific advice for decision-making has been downgraded, as seen in the record delay in choosing a scientific advisor and the subsequent devaluation of the position. The pipeline of new scientific talent from overseas has been constricted and support for research has been reduced, with a few notable exceptions such as biodefense. NIH's budget increased by just 2.5% in 2004; such measly growth will negate the recent doubling of the budget very quickly.

Sometimes the damage has been done due to political expediency, at other times religious belief, and at still other times it has been the fall-out from quite unrelated policies. One cannot point to a single knockout blow to science, but the accumulation of multiple digs and jabs has taken its toll.

Brazen political maneuvering is the greatest cause of concern. The Union of Concerned Scientists (USC) cataloged "distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends" across multiple areas of policy, including the dismissal of qualified scientists from advisory committees, the disbandment of other committees, censorship and political oversight of government scientists, and revision of Acts to constrain scientific input.1

The high-visibility campaign conducted by UCS has been necessary, but it carries the danger of further undermining science. One risk is the counterclaim that it is the scientists themselves who are playing politics; another is that a stiff price will be paid if President Bush secures a second term. At a recent forum,2 Bob Walker, former chair of the House Science Committee and now representing the president's campaign, explored both themes in the following, almost McCarthy-esque, remark: "Science does itself a disservice when in fact it mixes those two things [politics and science] in a way that can engender a push-back at some point in the future."

Ironically, the best-publicized science issue of the campaign is of a higher-minded tone. The generation of new embryonic stem lines, to which the president is implacably opposed, has become a talking point following the death of Christopher Reeve, a champion of stem cell research. Whether you agree or disagree with Bush's position (I personally disagree), he comes to it as a result of deeply held religious convictions, which deserve respect. And in practice, since there are no plans to block funding from nonfederal sources, the issue of stem cell lines is an important but not momentous one.

Far more pressing is the restraint on immigration of scientists. The current administration's policies that are aimed at protecting the country from terrorists make visas much more difficult for researchers to obtain and to cause those who do get them to feel less than welcome. As a result, the flow of scientific talent (particularly raw young talent from developing countries) has slowed dramatically, placing this country's position as the scientific superpower in serious jeopardy. Down the line it will also hit the economy, as scientific and technological creativity are major drivers of economic development.

How to create the optimal policy that expedites desirable visitors while excluding undesirable ones remains unclear. What is clear is that on this, as on other science issues, George Bush has performed poorly. I can only hope that we will get the opportunity to find out if John Kerry can do better.

Further coverage: Analysis of the respective science policies of Bush and Kerry can be found on page 7; for a perspective on the Bush-science schism, see Letters on page 10; and an update of the debate in California on stem cells is on page 12.

Richard Gallagher, Editor rgallagher@the-scientist.com

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Mettler Toledo
BD Biosciences
BD Biosciences