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Clinton, Obama S&T Advisers Square Off At AAAS
Science and technology advisers to the U.S. presidential campaigns of Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama outlined their candidates' S&T plans and took questions from a standing-room-only audience at the AAAS Annual Meeting on 16 February 2008.
The venue lacked the television-friendly red, white and blue bunting, but the advisers in this tightly contested race for the Democratic nomination did their best to discuss how they would handle S&T issues differently from their primary opponent, the current administration and their Republican challenger.
Many of their proposals were similar in spirit: double the amount of federal funding for basic science; reduce the "politicization" of federal research; push for increased information technology to streamline health care; and support science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education as a way to build a 21st century workforce.
But Thomas Kalil, adviser for science, technology and innovation for Clinton's campaign, said that, compared to Obama, Clinton "has been a lot more specific about steps she would take to restore the prominence of science and technology...and more specific on the types of research investments she thinks are necessary to restore American economic competitiveness."
Alec Ross, adviser on technology, media and telecommunications for Obama's campaign, disputed that claim, saying Obama has produced a "dense," detailed platform on technology issues in particular. From broadband Internet access to alternative energy sources, Obama "really gets into the weeds," according to Ross, who repeatedly urged the audience to visit Obama's Web site to read the campaign proposals.
Kalil is special assistant to the chancellor for science and technology at the University of California, Berkeley, and served as deputy assistant for technology and economic policy for President Bill Clinton. Ross is co-founder of the One Economy Corporation, a nonprofit organization created to bring information technology to low-income people.
Both candidates have promised to raise the profile of S&T advisers in their administrations. Kalil said Clinton would rescue the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from "bureaucratic Siberia" and make her or him a direct assistant to the president again.
If Obama is elected, Ross said, he would be the first president to appoint a chief technology officer to ensure the safety of the government's information networks and work with "each arm of the federal goverment to make its records open and accessible."
Kalil and Ross both spoke extensively about the need to restore scientific integrity to federal agencies and governmental advisory boards, in response to numerous accounts of suppressed research and political manipulation of science under the current administration. Kalil noted that Clinton has been the only candidate to devote an entire speech to the problem, speaking at the Carnegie Institution for Science in 2007 on the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch.
"The current administration has the same relationship with advisory committees that exists between a drunk and a lamppost. That is, it's used for support rather than illumination," Kalil said, to the audience's applause and laughter.
Claudia Dreifus, the New York Times science journalist who moderated the forum, asked the advisers how their candidates would match up against the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain from Arizona. McCain "is no George W. Bush," she noted, pointing to the senator's record of engagement on issues like global climate change.
"I think that the contrast on issues specific to science and technology would be a sharp one," Ross said, recalling a comment by McCain during the primary campaign that the Arizona senator would hand over "less important" issues like technology to his vice president.
"It's not a question of specifically disagreeing with positions that he's [McCain] taken, it's a question that he's been silent on these issues," Kalil agreed.
The advisers fielded questions from the audience on a range of topics, from the future of manned missions to the Moon and Mars, federal investment in nuclear energy, and genetic testing privacy protections. Ross said the Obama campaign will make a major announcement related to space policy next month, but did not give details.
The Annual Meeting forum was organized by AAAS's Center for Science, Technology and Congress; the Association of American Universities (AAU); and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.
In January, AAAS, in partnership with the Richard Lounsbery Foundation and the AAU, launched a Web site that tracks the presidential candidates' positions on a wide range of S&T issues. Al Teich, director of AAAS Science & Policy Programs, said the overwhelming number questions posed by the audience at the forum would be archived on the site.
The advisers' forum was prompted by the Web site, Teich said, and representatives from all the major campaigns were invited to attend. The McCain campaign "sent regrets for not being able to get an adviser here on such short notice," and the remaining Republican campaigns did not respond to the invitation, Teich said.
Also in January, AAAS announced that it would join ScienceDebate 2008, a major effort by scientists and policymakers in both political parties to mount a presidential debate on S&T issues before the November election. Kalil and Ross declined to say whether their candidates would participate in such a debate, although Kalil encouraged researchers to keep speaking out to ensure a prominent place for S&T in the next administration.
Ross's advice was a bit more blunt: "Don't be so polite. At the end of the day, if what you're trying to do is elevate your issues, then you've got to be aggressive about presenting those issues."
17 February 2008