Debate reveals who will help science funding

The final presidential debate between Obama and McCain had at least one telling moment for U.S.-based scientists who depend on grants for their research. After McCain repeated his promise to immediately freeze all federal funding, Obama pointed out (a bit later) that if you impose a freeze, you can't do new research to discover new cures. They were talking about special-needs children, but the broader implication was clear to me, and it was nice to see Obama point it out.

Yes, I realize I'm speaking as a member of an interest group on this (but who isn't a member of some interest group or other?), but science funding can't just be frozen. A budget freeze is an unthinking administrative step, and it's the coward's way out - it's a way to avoid favoring any one program over any other. Obama pointed out, correctly, that the smarter path is to set priorities and cut some programs, but not others. Admittedly he didn't make it so clear what he would cut either, but at least he said he would pick winners and losers rather than freeze everything. Whenever I hear "across the board freeze" (or "cut"), I know that someone was too chicken to make some tough decisions.

Most people outside academic science don't realize that a "freeze" has real consequences for biomedical and scientific research. New programs cannot get started unless there is new money. Most large scientific programs have multi-year funding, so you can't just cut those off to start new ones. And the costs of doing science increase like everything else, so if you freeze funding, the amount of scientific research steadily declines.

McCain made one other anti-science comment - for the second time in a debate - though many people don't realize it. This is his annoying gripe about the "$3 million overhead projector." It makes a good sound bite, but no one is paying $3 million for an overhead project - that's absurd. The money was for the Adler planetarium in Chicago, a very popular exhibit with children and adults alike. They need a new Zeiss Mark VI star projector to replace their 40-year-old one, and they are trying to raise money for it. Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer) blogged about this in detail the first time McCain raised it.

So in the last debate, when it came to Science issues, the score in my book was Obama 2, McCain 0.

1 comment:

  1. Well, planetariums very well may attract students to a career in astronomy/astrophysics, but is this a good thing?

    I've just been reading interesting book "A Nuclear Family Vacation" in which the authors tour various nuclear weapons related sites (which still employ tens of thousands of people in the US, let alone Russia, Iran, etc.).

    One thing that I found rather scary is that I've learned that the educational background of nuclear weapons designers is generally a doctorate in astrophysics -- it seems that the fusion going on in stars is not very different from that in thermonuclear weapons. Maybe I was just naive, but I always thought astrophysics was about as basic science as it gets. Not so.


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