Obama and McCain on funding basic research

September 15, 2008

From Sciencedebate 2008, we learn of the candidates’ visions (it isn’t really fair to call them plans, or promises) for the scientific enterprise in this country.

What I’ll focus on here are the responses to question 13:

Research. For many years, Congress has recognized the importance of science and engineering research to realizing our national goals.  Given that the next Congress will likely face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in basic research in upcoming budgets?

Obama’s reply:

Federally supported basic research, aimed at understanding many features of nature— from the size of the universe to subatomic particles, from the chemical reactions that support a living cell to interactions that sustain ecosystems—has been an essential feature of American life for over fifty years. While the outcomes of specific projects are never predictable, basic research has been a reliable source of new knowledge that has fueled important developments in fields ranging from telecommunications to medicine, yielding remarkable rates of economic return and ensuring American leadership in industry, military power, and higher education. I believe that continued investment in fundamental research is essential for ensuring healthier lives, better sources of energy, superior military capacity, and high-wage jobs for our nation’s future.

Yet, today, we are clearly under-investing in research across the spectrum of scientific and engineering disciplines. Federal support for the physical sciences and engineering has been declining as a fraction of GDP for decades, and, after a period of growth of the life sciences, the NIH budget has been steadily losing buying power for the past six years. As a result, our science agencies are often able to support no more than one in ten proposals that they receive, arresting the careers of our young scientists and blocking our ability to pursue many remarkable recent advances. Furthermore, in this environment, scientists are less likely to pursue the risky research that may lead to the most important breakthroughs. Finally, we are reducing support for science at a time when many other nations are increasing it, a situation that already threatens our leadership in many critical areas of science.

This situation is unacceptable. As president, I 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.

Sustained and predictable increases in research funding will allow the United States to accomplish a great deal. First, we can expand the frontiers of human knowledge. Second, we can provide greater support for high-risk, high-return research and for young scientists at the beginning of their careers. Third, we can harness science and technology to address the “grand challenges” of the 21st century: energy, health, food and water, national security, information technology, and manufacturing capacity.

McCain’s reply:

With spending constraints, it will be more important than ever to ensure we are maximizing our investments in basic research and minimizing the bureaucratic requirements that eat away at the money designed for funding scientists and science. Basic research serves as the foundation for many new discoveries and represents a critical investment for the future of the country and the innovations that drive our economy and protect our people. I have supported significant increases in basic research at the National Science Foundation. I also called for a plan developed by our top scientists on how the funding should be utilized. We must ensure that our research is addressing our national needs and taking advantage of new areas of opportunities and that the results of this research can enter the marketplace. We must also ensure that basic research money is allocated to the best science based on quality and peer review, not politics and earmarks.

I am committed to reinvigorating America’s commitment to basic research, and will ensure my administration funds research activities accordingly. I have supported increased funding at DOE, NSF, and NIH for years and will continue to do so. I will continue my commitment to ensure that the funding is properly managed and that the nation’s research needs are adequately addressed.

The commitment on the parts of both candidates is encouraging.  As was mentioned here, Obama has a pretty clear vision, one that includes a further doubling of research budgets (all research, not just NIH) over the next decade.  Also as argued here, this would seem to be an excellent investment, and will probably pay for itself.  McCain is less willing to get specific, and seems to be satisfied with his efforts to increase funding at DOE, NSF, and NIH.  McCain also stresses better management, and implies that he will re-assign earmarked funds to peer-reviewed research.  These are also good ideas.

I won’t try to decide for readers which vision is better – the complexities and intrigues of Washington will inevitably confound these very good intentions.  But what I will note is the contrast between Obama’s specific and strong vision, and McCain’s vague and weaker hopes.   Obama is clearly the stronger and more forceful of the two.