US Presidential campaigns involving an incumbent usually boil down toa simple choice: the challenger's proposal for change against thesitting president's argument for more of the same. This year's race, however, reverses the terms of reference. George W. Bush, spurred and empowered by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has precipitated far more dramatic policy changes than could have been predicted from his narrow margin of victory in 2000. Voters this year must consider whether those changes should be consolidated and perhaps extended, as the president has advocated, or blunted and perhaps rolled back by the Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Left: Courtesy of Amy Shields; Right: Courtesy of Sharon Farmer
Science policy has not been insulated from the changes in the broader US policy environment. The Bush administration has altered federal R&D spending priorities. More significantly for the campaign, it has departed from its predecessors in its use of scientific information for making policy. Senator Kerry has made "science for policy" a central element of his challenge, calling on the electorate to unseat what he calls "one of the most antiscience administrations in our nation's history." The stakes are high. Another narrow margin of victory, as is likely with whoever is victorious, may nonetheless produce a powerful mandate.
Neither candidate has personal experience in technical matters. Nor, for better or worse, does either match 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore's enthusiasm for science policy. Rather, both of this year's contenders have had responsibility for science and technology thrust upon them – Bush as president, Kerry as the congressional advocate for Massachusetts' research universities and high-technology businesses.
That said, Senator Kerry has invested far more time and energy in this domain than President Bush during the campaign itself. His campaign devoted a week in June to the Clintonian theme of economic growth through federally enabled technological innovation, and another week in August to advancing its claim that the administration has subjugated science to politics. The senator spoke to these themes when he accepted his party's nomination in Boston. The president said very little about research and innovation in his acceptance speech in New York.
STEM CELLS TAKE CENTER STAGE
Among the other featured speakers at the Democratic convention was Ron Reagan, who spoke exclusively and passionately about embryonic stem cell research. Such research may lead to effective therapies for Alzheimer disease, to which his father succumbed earlier this year. Merely having a Reagan on the convention podium may have aided the Democrats in reaching middle-of-the-road "swing" voters, but his subject has the potential to drive the wedge far deeper. Embryonic stem cell research may have applications to many medical conditions, appealing to the powerful bipartisan coalition of disease groups that has supported the immense expansion of federal funding for biomedical research over the past half-century.
The Bush administration provides limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research ($24.8 million in FY03) and restricts recipients to using cell lines that existed on Aug. 9, 2001. On that day, the president concluded a lengthy and much-publicized deliberation with a televised speech that shone the national spotlight on a topic unfamiliar to much of the public. He sought a Solomonic solution that would satisfy his most conservative supporters, who oppose any use of human embryos by researchers, while reassuring moderate voters attracted to his "compassionate conservatism."
Three years later, the Republican base remains satisfied, despite the lack of restrictions on stem cell researchers relying on non-federal sources. Many closer to the center, however, have become disenchanted. Indeed, California advocates of embryonic stem cell research have gone to the extreme of placing a referendum on the fall ballot that would authorize $300 million of state funding annually to support projects that are not currently allowed by the National Institutes of Health.
Senator Kerry has sought to make embryonic stem cell research emblematic of the broader theme suggesting that the president holds extreme views closer to religion than to science. In a similar vein, the Kerry campaign cites the Food and Drug Administration's overruling of an advisory committee that recommended approval of a morning-after contraceptive and constraints on US support for international efforts to combat AIDS. The Bush campaign responds that "scientists who want to use taxpayer dollars" must submit to "reasonable ethical requirements."
Democratic assertions about politics trumping science refer to special interests as well as conservative ideology. The Republican administration, this argument runs, has allowed favored firms and industries to ignore the facts when they might impede business opportunities. Energy and environmental issues form the key terrain for this battle, which is not surprising when one considers that both the president and the vice president previously worked in the oil business, while the romance between Senator Kerry and his current wife began at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit.
Senator Kerry, for instance, perceives a firm scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, warranting relatively aggressive policy responses (although he does not accept the Kyoto Protocol in its current form). His energy policy proposal places great weight on improving energy efficiency and on technological advances in renewable sources, which he claims can supply 20% of US electricity by 2020. The Democrats have endorsed charges first put forward by Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) that the administration systematically manipulated or simply ignored the scientific advisory process, not only on climate change but also on a wide array of similar issues, such as oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the establishment of a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. Yucca Mountain may be of particular tactical importance, since Nevada is a swing state and the issue potentially potent enough to swing it to Senator Kerry.
The UCS report drew a 20-page rebuttal from the White House, asserting the administration's commitment to "sound, independent science." With respect to climate change in particular, the president "acknowledged the role of human activity in increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases." He does not accept the main findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, however, stressing instead the statement by a National Academy of Sciences panel that "considerable uncertainty remains" about the consequences of such concentrations. The administration's major energy technology initiative is a five-year, $1.7 billion effort to advance development of hydrogen-fueled automobiles. Its energy policy overall centers on expanding supply, a goal, it should be noted, to which the Democratic ticket also subscribes (as it does increasing hydrogen energy research).
The debate over "science for policy" feeds a larger contest to win voters' trust. Trust is of the utmost importance in national security policy, which has been utterly transformed since Sept. 11, 2001. The candidate who best establishes his credibility on the issue of reducing future terrorist threats, particularly whether the US-led military campaign in Iraq did so, will probably win.
The administration's response to terrorism has made research and innovation more difficult in some respects. For foreign students and visitors (and their American sponsors), the already tortuous visa bureaucracy has become much more so. Scientific exchange has been inhibited by new regulations and investigations justified by the new threat. Senator Kerry has called (albeit with the challenger's luxury of not having to oversee the bureaucracy) for a more cooperative and open approach in science, a message that dovetails with his broader foreign policy position. President Bush clearly believes the risks of being too closed are less than those of being too open.
Of course, some fields have experienced substantial new inflows of attention and funds since 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with an R&D budget of $1.2 billion for fiscal year 2005, is the first new addition to the roster of major federal funding agencies in more than a quarter-century. Another $900 million will procure vaccines and related biodefense countermeasures, the first of ten annual installments for the president's Project Bioshield. Homeland security tops the list of priorities in the White House's R&D budget guidance for all agencies for future years. Senator Kerry endorses all this and more, advocating, among other things, a strategic initiative for drugs and vaccines to accelerate what Project Bioshield has begun.
Whether the federal government will be able to afford everything that either candidate has promised, even in high-priority areas such as homeland security, is not something that either campaign likes to talk about very much. The White House refers proudly to the 44% increase in federal R&D spending over President Bush's four years in office. The expected record spending of $131 billion in fiscal 2005 gives R&D its largest share of the discretionary budget (that is, excluding mandatory items such as entitlement and interest payments) in several decades. The backdrop for these increases, however, has been a ballooning deficit. War, social security, and Medicare/Medicaid will absorb substantial funds in future years, no matter who wins in 2004, and it may be a challenge even to sustain the current levels for R&D, especially if large new tax cuts (as the President has proposed) or spending programs (both candidates have their favorites) are enacted.
The aggregate growth in federal R&D spending under the current administration conceals important shifts in its composition. Defense R&D has grown twice as fast as nondefense R&D, and development has grown twice as fast as research. Programs to which the Democrats pose serious objections, as in missile defense and new nuclear weapons, have contributed to these shifts. An analysis by the nonpartisan American Association for the Advancement of Science of unpublished administration projections for the next four years anticipates more of the change. With the exception of NASA, which would be buoyed by the president's plan for manned missions to the Moon and Mars, R&D spending at every federal agency other than DHS and the Department of Defense would lag behind inflation.
Corporate R&D spending has been flat in the Bush era, following several years of unusually rapid expansion. A revival, if not a return to the irrational exuberance of the technology boom, depends more on sustained growth in the US and global economies than on any particular policy initiative. Recent economic indicators have been ambiguous, providing fodder for both the incumbent and the challenger. Although the choice between Republican tax cuts and Democratic social spending has significant distributional implications, neither party can convincingly claim control over the economic cycle, which has slipped largely beyond any single government's grasp.
CHOICE AND CONSEQUENCE
One should take care not to exaggerate the consequences of the 2004 election for the scientific community. The US public and its representatives in government are, as a whole, deeply committed to research and innovation. Like the macroeconomy, science and technology dig their own channels and cannot easily be diverted. Yet, accumulated marginal changes do add up over time. President Bush has set a new course for the country. If Senator Kerry is elected in 2004, he will find it hard to tack back toward the policies and priorities of the Clinton era. Four more years may well narrow the options significantly further in 2008.
David M. Hart