Presidential science lessons


Back in February, Plenty joined 175 leading academic and scientific institutions in calling for a televised debate on science policy in the run-up to the presidential election. Neither candidate took the bait; still, both John McCain and Barack Obama have now replied in writing to questions posed by the Science Debate crowd. Inevitably, that reduced the “debate” to little more than a set of copy-pasted campaign talking points; there was little in either candidate’s responses that you couldn’t find on their web-sites (or the Plenty Index). Still, it’s worth taking a look to get a sense of the kinds of arguments the candidates are making. Here are some of the highlights:

On innovation: Obama calls for a doubling of federal research budgets over the next decade and promises broadband internet access “for all Americans”. (No word yet on whether he’ll be paying my Comcast bill.) McCain, who admits to not knowing how to use a computer, says that he’s qualified to lead America’s technological revolution since he once flew planes for the Navy; also, he personally “spurred the rapid rise of mobile phones and Wi-Fi technology that enables Americans to surf the web while sitting at a coffee shop, airport lounge or public park”. (Al Gore may have invented the internet, but it seems it was John McCain who set it free.)

On climate change: No surprises here: both candidates reiterate their commitment to the climate struggle, saying they’d introduce a cap-and-trade system and return emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. McCain would then push for further reductions of 60 percent by mid-century; Obama would aim for an 80 percent emissions cut by 2050. Also worth noting: unlike McCain, Obama would establish cap-and-trade by auctioning off carbon credits, the method favored by most economists.

On energy: Obama promises to spend $150 billion on clean energy over the next decade; McCain says he’ll build 45 new nuclear reactors to meet rising demand, and that he’ll make government “an ally but not an arbiter” of renewable energy sources. McCain also backs away from his earlier suggestion that renewables will never have more than a bit-part in US energy supply: “Wind power alone could account for a fifth or more of all our electricity,” he now says. “And just in recent memory, solar energy has gone from a novelty to a fast-growing industry.”

On the oceans: Both candidates wax lyrical without saying much: Obama says America needs to begin a “program of ocean stewardship”, while McCain touts his Naval experience as having shown him “the power, wonder and complexity” of the world’s oceans.

Read the rest of the the candidates' responses here - and while you're at it, sign up to show your support for the Science Debate. Maybe next time around, we'll actually manage to get the candidates to discuss these issues in person.

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