Presidential Elections and Their Impact on Science & Technology in the US

bridges Vol. 19, October 2008 / Norm Neureiter on S&T in Foreign Policy

By Norm Neureiter



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Norm Neureiter

On October 4, I had the pleasure of participating in the annual Austrian Science Talks in North America, held this year in Chicago, and talking about the coming elections and their possible impact on science in the US. However, before moving to the topic of elections, let me comment briefly on my view of science in Austria. 

Some 43 years ago, I was the Stellvertretender Wissenschaftsattaché (Deputy Science Attaché) in the American Embassy in Bonn. In addition to Germany, our office had responsibility for Austria. And so one day early in my tour, we traveled to Vienna to see what was happening in Austrian science. Returning to Bonn, the view was unanimous, “Da in Oesterreich ist gar nix los.” (“Not much going on in Austria.”).

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} But listening to these speeches at the 2008 Austrian Science Talks I can only say, “What a huge change there has been!” Hearing Christa Kranzl, the state secretary in the Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology, and Ingolf Schädler, the deputy director general for Innovation of the Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology, talking about science policy, basic and applied research, innovation, planning, budgeting, priorities, goal setting, etc., was really exciting. 

Austria’s great success is also shown in numbers: In the 6th and 7th Framework Programs of the EU, Austria received a return of 17 percent more from their many EU research programs than it invested. That is a terrific record of success – to say nothing of the professional and business links that have been made with other countries, and the value of the successful research itself. What is clear is that Austria has become a worthy partner in the global advance of science and technology.

Now a few words about the murky view into the crystal ball of what the upcoming elections will mean for science and technology in the US. First, a bit about the context in which these elections are taking place: We are living in a very difficult time in the history of the United States. Based on global polls, our image throughout much of the world is bad. The attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11 truly changed America. For the past six-plus years, the administration has focused on its “global war on terrorism” – in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and perhaps soon in Pakistan, maybe even Iran. Our visa policies, our immigration policies, and our homeland security measures – all have made us a less desirable destination for scientists and postdoctoral researchers. It has become more difficult to hold an international scientific meeting in the US and be assured that all international invitees will get their visas in time, especially if they are from Russia, China, India, East Europe, or a Muslim country. There is a paralytic polarization in the Congress that has inhibited dealing with serious problems such as the energy challenge. And now the world is threatened with financial collapse as one after another of America’s great financial institutions ceases to exist.

We are now in fiscal year (FY) 2009. This new fiscal year is already several days old but there is no final budget for the government, and Congress has gone home for the election. The only agencies funded are the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs. All other agencies – NSF, NIH, DOE, etc. – are on a continuing resolution (CR) until March, meaning that their budgets are held to last year’s levels and nothing will change until the new government takes action. But the present outlook is that the only increases in R&D budgets will be in the defense and homeland security areas and all other science agencies’ budgets will be flat to down in 2009. 

The US government’s total R&D budget for FY 2009 is now at $147 billion, of which $86 billion is for defense R&D, and the remaining $61 billion for all other government-funded R&D. Early next year, most likely in February, the new administration will have to deal with these budgets, which have been trending downward for the past 2 to 3 years. Furthermore, the new administration will have to deal with the legacy of the Bush administration that has been seen as putting ideology before science in national decision-making. Frequently mentioned examples are in global warming and climate change, in stem cell research and in environmental protection. Some critics have cited missile defense and energy as further examples. 

The greatest problem is that, regardless of the views of the candidates on science, the financial condition of the US government – which has run a $500 billion deficit in FY 2008 – and the catastrophic financial crisis wiping out trillions of dollars of equity in investments and real estate will make it very difficult to increase science or R&D spending in the coming year. The great danger is that there will be major cuts.  

Remarkably, against this dismal background, there are still two principal candidates spending hundreds of millions of dollars each to take on the awesome responsibility of the presidency. In general, both candidates would tend to favor greater investments in R&D. If one wants to examine their positions in detail, the best resource is Science Debate 2008 , available on the Web and presenting side-by-side comparisons of their answers on 14 broad topics, which came from some 3400 specific questions submitted by 38,000 scientists. For Obama, the answers were prepared by a team of 40 scientist-advisors headed by Nobel Prize winner Harold E. Varmus. McCain’s were done more by staff and close advisors.  

In general, McCain would favor typical Republican positions of stimulating the private sector through tax cuts, while Obama would see the government more as a partner of industry and rely more on government-funded initiatives. Both would address global warming, but in somewhat different ways. On energy, Obama would put more emphasis and money on conservation and renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, while McCain would drill for more domestic oil and gas and aggressively build nuclear plants in addition to looking at renewables. Obama would double funding for basic research over the next ten years, while McCain, except in defense, would keep spending at present levels in the near term. 

There is one point about which many of my scientist colleagues and I feel very strongly. We think it is essential that the appointment of the president’s science advisor take place very early in the next administration, so that he or she can assist in filling the other science positions in government. The person should have the confidence of the president and be able to work closely with him on science and technology budget and policy issues. Effectively, this person is the US “minister for science and technology,” although without portfolio or control of funding. The strength of this “minister” position depends on the ability to provide advice that is heard and respected by the president.

So let me conclude with some personal opinions. Regardless of who wins the elections, the greatest problem is the financial one. With a huge deficit that can only increase this year as government intervenes to try to prevent total system collapse, neither party nor candidate will have much leeway for new scientific spending initiatives. The real issue may be how to minimize future budget cuts. I also think that even though both candidates are effectively running against the Bush administration’s record, insisting that they are for “change in Washington,” it is clear that in running as a Republican, McCain will have a debt to the party that has guided the Bush policies for the past eight years. Many people with the same views will be involved at various levels in a McCain administration. That means if one truly wants a change, it has to come by giving Obama and the Democrats a chance at governing.

Feelings among the electorate are very strong on both sides. The campaign is turning to very unpleasant personal attacks and I am certain we are in for the last few weeks of an increasingly nasty campaign waged not just by the candidates themselves, but by independently funded groups for whom there will be no limits on the extremes of insult or falsehood used to discredit a candidate. This is not democracy at its finest. Nonetheless, there will be an election; there will be a new president; and I do hope for the best for this great country as it seeks to address the challenges of the perilous times in which we live.

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The author, Norman Neureiter, has been the director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy since May 2004.
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