New York Times Rates McCain, Obama on Innovation

The New York Times published an extensive look today at the presidential candidates’ platforms and records on high-tech innovation in the United States, with a focus on what the two men would do as president to protect and restore the country’s competitive edge.

It’s interesting reading. Despite their parties’ conflicting ideologies, Senators McCain and Obama are in broad agreement about the importance of innovation and a strong technology sector to the overall economy. But they differ on many details, especially when it comes to the role the federal government should play in encouraging basic research and the training of more young scientists and engineers.

Experts interviewed by the Times worry that in light of the current financial crisis, measures that will strengthen the U.S. economy over the long term are getting short shrift. “The problem is that [strengthening innovation] takes an immediate investment that won’t pay immediate dividends, and people are looking for an instant fix,” said retired New York congressman Sherwood Boehlert, the former chair of the House science committee.

And former MIT president and current National Academy of Engineering president Charles Vest faults both candidates for saying too little about innovation policy on the campaign trail. “I understand the immediate pressures and vicissitudes of elections, but I’d like to see them raising the discussion on this, which is absolutely fundamental to the future of jobs and the economy,” Vest told the Times.

A few of the article’s other highlights:

* Obama wants to double federal financing of basic research in physics, life sciences, mathematics, and engineering over the next10 years. McCain, by contrast, favors encouraging private spending on research through tax breaks and deregulation.

* McCain, while generally supporting trade liberalization measures that clear the way for greater American technology exports, has reversed himself in cases where he saw national security at stake. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation from 1997 to 2005, he pushed for restrictions on technology exports to China that, experts say, ultimately pushed the Chinese to accelerate home-grown efforts in areas like computing and space exploration, at the expense of U.S. suppliers.

* In 2007, Obama co-sponsored a bill implementing the recommendations of a 2005 National Academies report on strengthening technological competitiveness. The bill, designed to finance scholarships for math, science, and engineering students, increase basic research budgets, and establish low-cost broadband access nationwide, passed the Senate 88 to 8; McCain abstained. (President Bush signed the bill, called the “American Competes Act,” but Congress hasn’t yet funded it; it’s projected to cost $43 billion over three years.)

* Obama and McCain would both restore the role of the presidential science advisor; make R&D tax credits permanent; overhaul the U.S Patent and Trademark Office; expand research on human stem cells; and allow more foreign engineers to work in the United States.

* McCain says it’s not the government’s role to choose which technologies have the most potential to succeed. He has proposed a $300 million prize to encourage entrepreneurs to develop electric-car technology. But at the same time, he has proposed a freeze on discretionary federal spending that would include research spending. And he has frequently attacked research projects such as a United States Geological Survey study of endangered grizzly-bear populations as examples of wasteful federal spending.

* The McCain campaign has no formal structure for obtaining science and technology advice; Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office, is the campaign’s “point man” on science, climate, and space policy. Obama’s campaign has a science advisory committee headed by Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health and president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The campaign says that 61 Nobel laureates in science have endorsed Obama for president.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “New York Times Rates McCain, Obama on Innovation”

  1. Well done!
    The article final statement that 61 Nobel laureates in science have have endorsed Obama for president, tells it all.