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Proxies for Bush and Kerry Differ Sharply at a AAAS Forum on Science Issues
Campaign representatives for the U.S. President George W. Bush and his challenger, Sen. John Kerry, clashed at a AAAS forum Thursday over a broad range of issuesfrom embryonic stem cell research and climate change to federal R&D priorities and the feasibility of a broad shift to hydrogen fuels.
But one subject seemed to loom above the others during the 90-minute exchange at AAAS headquarters in Washington: the role of politics in science, and the role of scientists in politics. Though the tone of the forum was measured and well-mannered, the questions of science and politics flared repeatedly and seemed to draw a deep divide between the two camps. [To hear the archived webcast of the forum, click here.]
The debate over science and technology issues was an prelude to Thursday night's nationally televised debate in Miami, featuring Kerry and Bush in a 90-minute exchange on national security and foreign policy. But at the AAAS forum, an overflow audience of about 250 people suggested that science and technology issues are likely to have a high profile in the weeks leading up to the 2 November election.
"The questions from the audience brought out a few important points that haven't appeared in campaign speeches or in the magazine interviews, such as the spokespersons' definitions of 'sound science'," said Albert H. Teich, head of Science and Policy at AAAS. "The fact that we had such a large crowd and far more questions from the audience than we had time to handle confirms my impression that this is a campaign that has generated much more intense interest among scientists and engineers than most previous ones."
Representing the Bush campaign was Bob Walker, formerly chair of the House Science Committee and now chairman of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates. Speaking on behalf of the Kerry-Edwards campaign was physicist Henry Kelly, formerly the assistant director for technology of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Kelly currently is president of the Federation of American Scientists. The forum was moderated by Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, a not-for-profit education and outreach group that seeks to make medical and health research a higher national priority.
In a 10-minute opening statement, Walker argued that the Bush administration has been strongly committed to science.
To underscore the point, he offered a series of spending figures: Research and development spending rose 44 percent during Bush's term, from $91 billion in 2001 to $132 billion proposed by the administration for the 2005 budget year. R&D makes up 13.5 percent of the total discretionary outlays in the 2005 budget plan, the highest in 37 years. Funding for the National Institutes of Health is up more than 40 percent in four years, and some 30 percent at the National Science Foundation. Even if the R&D at the Department of Defense and NIH are subtracted, federal R&D spending is up 16 percent, from $23.1 billion in 2001 to $26.8 billion proposed for 2005.
"Not since 1968 and the Apollo program have we seen an investment of this magnitude in science," Walker said. "Any fair analysis will show that the Bush administration's willingness to prioritize innovation and science is real and is growing."
But Kelly countered with an indictment of the administration, saying it has crafted policy on energy, embryonic stem cell research, climate change and other critical issues in secret, often basing policy less on good science than on political considerations.
As an example, he cited the new missile defense system. "It's…very difficult to understand the process the administration used to set priorities for defense research," he said. "Nearly 15 percent of DoD research fundsnearly $10 billiongoes to support a missile defense system that has been faulted by virtually every objective review I know of."
Kerry's campaign has attracted support and endorsements from many high-profile scientists and science groups, including a group of 48 Nobel laureates in chemistry, physics and medicine. In February, the Union of Concerned Scientists and 62 top scientistsincluding Nobel laureates, National Medal of Science recipients, former senior advisers to administrations of both parties and numerous members of the National Academy of Sciencesreleased "Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making," a report highly critical of the Bush administration.
Walker, in his opening statement and on other occasions during an hour-long question-and-answer session, charged that many scientists are letting their objectivity be compromised by partisan politics. That, he said, may bring unhappy consequences.
"A lot of scientists who come out of the academic community come out of institutions that have a heavily liberal bias," he said. "I don't doubt that their politics and so forth reflects not only their judgment about science, but sometimes their personal politics inside of academia….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."
Kelly, along with some in the audience, questioned whether that was a political threat to scientists.
"One of the concerns we have…is that spirit of open, competitive debate has not been honored in a number of the key decisions in this administration," Kelly said. "To suggest that because scientists are raising concerns about the openness and integrity of the process that they are going to be punished politically is not a terribly attractive message to be sending to them."
Walker was quick to counter: "Nobody is suggesting that they are going to be politically punished. If they get into politics, they're going to find they're in politicsthat's the point I'm trying to make."
The two sides did agree on at least two issues considered critical in the science and technology communityimmigration and peer-review of research grants.
Both acknowledged that the U.S. has reaped considerable benefits from a past policy of allowing foreign students to study, train and work in the country. Kelly, however, said that Bush since the 11 September terror attacks has put "terrible constraints" on such immigration, driving down foreign applications at most major research universities. Walker said "the administration does recognize there's a problem," but said it resulted from the urgent need after 9/11 to enact strict security measures across U.S. culture.
Both also agreed that the government should allow the peer-review process to govern federal grant decisions. In some recent cases, members of Congress have tried to block federal funding for research into human sexuality and the decorations of college students dorm rooms, finding the research objectionable or frivolous.
On other issues, however, the two camps continued to battle over disagreements that have emerged throughout the campaign:
Embryonic Stem Cell Research
In 2001, Bush moved to allow federal funding on a limited number of stem cell lines derived from human eggs that had been fertilized for three to five days. Many scientists have said that the at most 20 lines available under the federal policy are too few to effectively pursue treatments for illnesses such as diabetes, Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis.
Kelly said Kerry favors such research. But Kerry opposes human cloning, he said, and has joined with U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on a bill that would ban reproductive cloning. There is "a clear distinction between human cloning and the kind of research that can take advantage of the medical advantages of stem cells, which is understood by senators on both sides of the aisle," Kelly said. He charged the Bush administration had overstated the number and quality of stem cell lines that were made available.
Walker cited advances resulting from research into stem cells taken from adults and from umbilical cord blood, both of which are far less controversial. He argued that Bush has taken a prudent middle course, funding the research while doing it "in a way that did deal with ethical and moral questions." He added: "If in fact we had broadly opened the door…you would have created a firestorm on Capitol Hill that probably would've retarded our ability to do that [research] in the future."
Kelly charged that the Bush Administration has failed to act effectively on global warming. And the failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has made the U.S. "an international pariah" with little credibility among other nations on environmental issues. Kyoto may have been flawed, he said, but he faulted Bush for failure to offer an alternative.
"The Bush administration is apparently taking the position that there must be absolute certainty about the catastrophic impact of climate change before any significant action is justified," Kelly said. "The scientific consensus is that there's a good chance that the nation and the world face a major danger and that failure to take preventive action is irresponsible."
Walker did not detail Bush policy on global warming. However, he called U.S. leadership of the International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy a "significant" effort to work with other countries, and one that is an effective alternative to the Kyoto process.
Energy Policy and Alternative Fuels
Both candidates stressed the need to reduce reliance on foreign oil.
Guided by the philosophy that Americans deserve "unlimited access to unlimited supply" of fuel, Walker said, the Bush administration has embraced hydrogen-based fuels as the "best hope of reducing our reliance on other countries." Some automakers will put hydrogen-fueled cars on the road within a couple of years, he said, and that approach is expected to yield dramatic changes in fuel-consumption by 2015.
At the AAAS forum, Kelly said Kerry "does strongly support hydrogen research, but he does not mistake a hydrogen program for a coherent energy policy." And, he added: "This narrow focus is certainly not based on the careful reviews and energy research strategies conducted by private groups, universities or the national laboratories." Kerry also advocates programs to improve vehicle fuel efficiency and to develop other alternative energy sources, including biomass and coal.
Human Space Flight
After one question noted a $6 billion expense for human-guided space missions, Walker said Bush believes "the idea of going back to the moon, on to Mars and beyond into the solar system is part of human destiny" and that such missions will keep the U.S. in a leadership position in global science while fostering "new ideas of who we are and where we came from."
Kelly said Kerry has strongly backed space exploration, but that at a time of "highly constrained" budgets, NASA needs to balance that mission with other missions such as weather and climate study and advanced aeronautics.
Edward W. Lempinen
1 October 2004