Bush vs. Kerry on Science

An alternative way to view the election

By Daniel S. Greenberg|Friday, October 01, 2004
RELATED TAGS: HEALTH POLICY

Without Washington’s billions—about 126.5 of them this year—America’s university laboratories and a vast network of federal research centers would wither, if not collapse. Science in the United States runs on tax dollars, and if the dollars decline, so too will the nation’s national security, health, and prosperity.

Despite that, science rarely becomes part of big-league politicking. This year—with such blockbuster issues as jobs, Iraq, domestic security, taxes, and the rising cost of health care—is different only to the extent that President George W. Bush’s stem cell research policies have made headlines.

Examining the positions of both Bush and challenger John Kerry might appear to be easy because both have track records. But feints, winks, and oratorical extravagance are the daily tactics of politics. What’s said and seen do not necessarily become policy and lawmaking. A president can loudly support a big research project, then fail to push it in Congress. The House and the Senate can make a show of an appealing program by passing an authorization bill, then somehow fail to pass the appropriations bill that pays for it. Often the impression of battle comes from firing blanks. To see where both the bullets and the blanks are being fired, let’s examine the major issues of science policy in 2004 and see where the candidates stand.


RESEARCH SPENDING

BUSH: The president can claim that research and development have prospered under his administration. Funding is up 44 percent since he took office. Dollars for basic research have increased 26 percent, and the budget for the National Institutes of Health completed a planned doubling—to $28 billion yearly—that began in the Clinton administration. That sum exceeds the biomedical research spending of all other nations combined. For the 2005 fiscal year, the Bush White House requested a 4.3 percent increase in overall research and development. If Congress passes it un-touched, the new budget would be $132 billion, a record high.

BUT: The president’s research numbers are sizable, but their distribution is skewed toward military and domestic security spending. During the Clinton administration, the Pentagon’s dominance of federal research funds was throttled back to about a fifty-fifty balance with civilian studies. Under Bush, the military share has climbed to 57 percent of the total and is budgeted for further growth. Defense is scheduled to get another $4 billion, while homeland security will rise to $1.2 billion. About $2.5 billion is slated for the antiterrorism Project BioShield. Pentagon funding includes $10 billion a year for the first phase of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars. (That would bring Star Wars spending since 1985 to a total of $80 billion.) All other federal research programs will lose some funding. To make up for a federal deficit of more than $400 billion, the White House has ordered most civilian research agencies to prepare for major budget reductions in the 2006 budget, including cuts for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

KERRY: The senator has a solid voting record for science spending. This is hardly surprising: He represents a state with universities that thrive on research grants. MIT received $304 million in federal research money in 2000–2001, while Harvard University took in $300 million and Boston University got $150 million. Kerry says he would provide additional research money by auctioning off parts of the broadcast spectrum, and he has proposed major cash prizes to stimulate scientific discoveries. Kerry backed the five-year doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget and recently supported a whopping 9.2 percent boost for the institutes when Bush proposed a 2.6 percent increase. He also backed a doubling schedule for the National Science Foundation. “Our country needs a renewed commitment to investment in basic research and the hard sciences, such as physics and chemistry,” Kerry wrote on his Web site. In a June speech he said he would be “a president for science.”

BUT: Where’s the money to come from? Bush’s warning that research agencies should prepare for budget reductions reflects real economics. And it may be hard to undo Bush initiatives. Kerry is opposed to deploying Star Wars, but with lucrative contracts spread around the country, it’s politically entrenched. Bush’s combination of tax cuts, escalating costs in Iraq, and rising financial requirements for domestic security have already put pressure on science, education, veterans’ benefits, and other popular programs. Despite Kerry’s support, it is difficult to see how the government can sustain the recent growth in science spending.


ENERGY

BUSH: The White House proposes to meet rising energy demands by increasing the supply. The president wants to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas drilling, a move blocked by public outcries and congressional opposition. If reelected, Bush is likely to return to this issue. Nuclear power also has a place in the administration’s energy portfolio, along with hydrogen power, which is budgeted for more than a billion research dollars in the coming years. Overall, the president relies heavily on marketplace mechanisms to promote energy efficiency.

BUT: Even with the help of the marketplace, America’s thirst for oil will continue to create economic and strategic difficulties. Suppose, for example, that drilling were allowed in domestic oil fields now out of bounds. The nation would still continue to increase its dependence on foreign imports, most from politically unstable regions. Moreover, the administration has resisted imposing higher mileage standards on new vehicles. Although faint signs of a nuclear revival have emerged, there is little prospect that safety and waste-disposal concerns could be addressed anytime soon. The hydrogen option has evoked conflicting assessments of feasibility, and no one expects to see hydrogen-powered vehicles hit the road in significant numbers within a decade.

KERRY: The senator has proposed “a new Manhattan Project to make America independent of Middle East oil in 10 years” by increasing the use of alternative fuels like ethanol and insisting that standards for auto mileage be raised. He has opposed Arctic drilling and strongly advocated tax credits for fuel-efficient vehicles. He backs the development of hydrogen-powered autos and a transition to a “hydrogen-based energy economy.” In April he joined with 50 other senators of both parties to appeal for a budget increase for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the focal point for most of the government’s energy research. Like Bush, the senator puts great reliance on marketplace mechanisms and tax incentives for achieving energy goals. However, when a conflict between increased oil production and environmental protection arises, Kerry has usually opted for the latter.

BUT: Kerry is cautious about energy politics. He favors nuclear power but insists that problems of waste disposal, nonproliferation, and plant safety must be dealt with first. A decade ago, when gasoline was about $1 a gallon, Kerry spoke favorably of a federal tax of 50 cents per gallon to discourage use. He never introduced legislation or talked up the idea, but Republicans have exhumed the proposal for campaign purposes. Kerry has said nothing about raising gasoline taxes in the campaign and very little about ending dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Recently, he said: “I don’t propose that we immediately stop burning coal, oil, and natural gas to address climate change or other environmental issues. Instead, I advocate a gradual transition from heavily polluting energy to clean energy at a pace that is technologically viable and economically beneficial.”

Environment

BUSH: The president has reversed many environmental policies established by the Clinton administration. Upon taking office, Bush set off a political storm by rejecting Clinton’s plans to reduce the levels of arsenic in drinking water. An eruption of indignation inspired a retreat. The matter was bucked back for further study to the National Academy of Sciences, which had recommended the reductions. Then a raucous row arose over releasing the names of participants in a task force convened by Vice President Dick Cheney to develop a national energy policy. Environmental organizations contend the task force was a cozy cabal of energy-industry representatives meeting in violation of federal sunshine laws. Cheney countered that private meetings were necessary, and permissible, to assure candor. A federal district court initially ruled against Cheney’s position but was ordered in June by the Supreme Court to reconsider. In May 2001, based on that task force’s work, the administration issued a national energy policy containing 105 recommendations. Few have been implemented. When the Environmental Protection Agency sought to relax standards on industrial smokestack emissions, environmentalists erupted again, and the administration ordered a retreat. In July Bush reversed Clinton’s ban on road building in nearly 60 million acres of national forest. In most cases the administration insists on cost-benefit analyses.

BUT: Worship of cost-benefit analysis leaves unanswered whose costs and whose benefits. While expenditures for an environmental program can be precisely stated, potential benefits often stretch far into the future. The long-term downside of delays in protecting the environment are often unclear until the costs for cleanup become overwhelming.

KERRY: The League of Conservation Voters says Kerry supported 96 percent of environmental legislation since he entered the Senate in 1985 and rates him “the strongest environmentalist in the field.” In his presidential campaign, Kerry issued a “Conservation Covenant,” in which he pledges to create “cleaner and greener communities.” He says he will establish an EPA task force to identify toxic dangers and that he will pep up the lagging Superfund cleanup program. He is committed “to improving our parks and taking on traffic congestion” as well as reversing what he calls Bush “rollbacks” of environmental regulations. In accord with the Clean Water Act, the senator promises to make America’s waters “drinkable, swimmable, and fishable.” He assigns a high priority to “environmental justice,” citing studies that show poor people and minorities bear a disproportionate share of the nation’s pollution costs.

BUT: While Kerry’s voting record on environmental causes is solid, he never won approval of a major environmental law during his nearly two decades in the Senate. That is not for lack of trying. Over the past 15 years, he has introduced or cosponsored some 40 environmental bills and amendments. In his early years in the Senate, he lacked the seniority that brings legislative influence. And for more than half his congressional career, the Senate has been under Republican control. If elected he could very well run into similar political obstacles, especially if the Senate and the House are controlled by Republicans.


CLIMATE CHANGE

BUSH: Shortly after taking office, the administration shocked the environmental movement by renouncing the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international agreement that established long-term limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The administration argued that the protocol would impair American economic growth while exempting China, India, and other developing nations from emission reductions as they sought to catch up. The White House also discounted warnings of global climate change induced by greenhouse gases, contending—contrary to near-unanimous findings by U.S. research agencies and international scientific bodies—that climate change was an unproven hypothesis. The administration called for more research and created the Climate Change Research Initiative to concentrate on areas of uncertainty about the scope, pace, and effects of climate change. The initiative, parceled out to the Department of Energy, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and five other federal agencies, has experienced rapid budget growth, from $41 million in fiscal 2003 to a presidential request for $238 million in 2005. To guide the efforts, Bush created a cabinet-level global change committee headed by the secretaries of energy and commerce in collaboration with the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. And the administration’s plans for expanding research on global climate change have passed muster by a review committee convened by the National Academy of Sciences.

BUT: Increased research is widely regarded in the scientific community as a diversion from the serious steps needed to reduce CO2. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “the Bush administration has done absolutely no analysis to substantiate its claim that the Kyoto Protocol or domestic policies to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from power plants would seriously harm the U.S. economy.”

KERRY: Kerry participated in the 1997 Kyoto conference. In 2001, when Bush repudiated the Kyoto Protocol, Kerry took to the Senate floor and attacked the move. In his speech, Kerry noted that the president “has repeatedly questioned the underlying science of climate change and attempted to reignite the debate over whether the threat is real.” Kerry pointed out that Bush’s position conflicted with the findings of distinguished scientific bodies, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “a scientific panel founded at the behest of his own father.” Kerry introduced the Global Climate Change Act in 2001 to restrain and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. With the Republicans in command of Congress and the White House, the legislation was stillborn.

BUT: In 1997 Kerry joined 94 other senators in support of a nonbinding resolution that undercut the Kyoto Protocol by insisting that developing nations agree to emissions reductions in the same time frame as the United States. The resolution also specified that the agreement not cause serious harm to the U.S. economy. Although merely advisory, the resolution created the impression that the treaty might be rejected by the Senate. Apparently embarrassed by his vote, Kerry later explained that “the prospect of human-induced global warming as an accepted thesis with adverse consequences for all is here, and it is real.” He conceded that he would have “worded some things differently” in the resolution but said,“I have come to the conclusion that these words are not a treaty killer.”

STEM CELLS

BUSH: After consulting religious leaders, physicians, scientists, and ethicists, the president issued a Solomonic decision on August 9, 2001. The 78 stem cell lines in existence would qualify for government-financed research, he said, but no additional money would be provided for additional cell lines. The decision was seen as an effort to mollify the religious fundamentalists at the core of Bush’s political support who are ideologically opposed to deriving the cells from frozen embryos in fertility clinics and scientists and patients who hope that the cells could be used to help patients with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, spinal-cord injuries, and diabetes.

BUT: Although scientists initially regarded the decision as better than expected, they soon had concerns. About three-fourths of the stem cell lines were found to be unsuitable for research, and many if not all the lines were contaminated with mouse feeder cells. Among the protesters was Nancy Reagan. Referring to her late husband’s long affliction with Alzheimer’s disease, the former first lady urged the president to provide unhampered government support for embryonic stem cell research. Bush did not yield. Demands of patients and supporters continue to arouse support on Capitol Hill. The pressures may be rising to the point where an adroit political retreat will be in the offing.

KERRY: Kerry has said he would cancel Bush’s stem cell edict. A strong supporter of human embryo stem cell research, the senator joined with hundreds of legislators from both parties after Ronald Reagan’s death in a renewed plea for Bush to remove restrictions. The statement raised hopes for a White House turnabout. Kerry’s involvement dates back at least to July 2001. At that time, Kerry and 57 other senators urged the president to recognize the need for federal support. Kerry and his colleagues emphasized that embryos in excess of fertility needs at in vitro clinics are routinely destroyed. “We ought to realize their promise of life,” the senators wrote, “rather than lose it altogether.”


SPACE

BUSH: The president set ambitious goals in space, starting with the completion of the troubled International Space Station by 2010, a base on the moon as early as 2015, and “human exploration of Mars and other destinations.” The cost of sending humans to Mars was not stated, and unofficial estimates range up to a trillion dollars.

BUT: At this stage, talk is cheap. It takes many years to ramp up spending for big space endeavors. The first major payments would not be due until at least a decade from now, long after Bush leaves office. The president’s latest budget calls for a 5.2 percent increase in NASA’s budget next year, to $16.2 billion. But his plans also cancel or revamp many existing NASA programs. Given the depleted state of the Treasury and a long record of public indifference to space programs, doubts about fulfillment of the moon-Mars plans are abundant on both sides of the political aisle.

KERRY: The senator is a member of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the authorization of NASA’s budget. “I’m excited by potential advances in pharmaceuticals that microgravity could lead to,” he told Space News in June. He said the space program is “an engine of innovation for the entire country,” adding that the benefits are enormous. Although they are difficult to quantify, he says, they are “even harder to discount.”

BUT: The senator’s legislative involvement with space issues has been negligible, and he has fewer specific programs for space exploration than his opponent. On the campaign trail, he has sniped at Bush’s moon-Mars ambitions, charging that the goals far exceed the funding available, thus compelling such decisions as abandoning the Hubble telescope. “The most critical element of our space program,” Kerry told Space News, “should be reducing the costs and increasing the reliability of transportation to and from low Earth orbit,” goals he says the president has neglected.


INTEGRITY

BUSH: The administration denies allegations that it has employed ideological “litmus tests” to screen candidates for appointments to federal committees on environmental and health issues, that it has suppressed reports that offend its antiabortion backers, and that it has politicized science. John H. Marburger III, the president’s science adviser, says critics have conjured up conspiratorial patterns from isolated incidents involving advisory appointments and policy decisions at the Department of Health and Human Services and the EPA. “Even when the science is clear—and often it is not—it is but one input into the policy process,” Marburger argued last April. Marburger, a Democrat, was backed by a predecessor in the White House science post, D. Allan Bromley, adviser to the first President Bush. Responding to a bill of particulars against the administration by 60 scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, Bromley scoffed, “You know perfectly well that it is very clearly a politically motivated statement.”

BUT: No one can ignore that the number of scientists who say research is being influenced by right-wing ideology is increasing. Although an editorial in the journal Nature last year recalled that prior administrations have also been accused of tinkering with scientific independence, it noted that “some of the recent developments are disturbing.” The plain fact is that the scientific community is fired up as never before, and very few scientists have spoken out in Bush’s favor.

KERRY: The senator strongly seconds the accusations against the White House, denouncing Bush as the head of “one of the most antiscience administrations in our nation’s history,” and accusing him of abusing scientific independence to pander to his right-wing backers. Kerry says his administration would always judge scientific advice on its professional merits, and not by ideological standards.

BUT: All presidents seem to favor advisers who share their political and ideological preferences.


INNOVATION

BUSH: Bush is on record as strongly supporting government assistance for innovation in manufacturing. In February Bush directed heads of federal agencies to assist technological enterprise through a long-standing government-wide program that subsidizes private-sector research under the Small Business Administration. The programs were launched by Congress during Ronald Reagan’s first term and can be found in virtually every congressional district, making them politically untouchable.

BUT: At the same time, Bush tried to abolish another program with the same aim, the Commerce Department’s Advanced Technology Program, a Clinton administration favorite that provides government funds for consortiums of private firms, sometimes in collaboration with universities or government laboratories, to work on common industrial problems. What’s the difference between the two programs? Not much in content. But politically, they’re worlds apart. Clinton’s ambitions for his program drew the fire of Newt Gingrich and his Republican budget-cutting revolution and never came close to the billion-dollar level he wanted. This year, the Clinton plan is budgeted for $184 million and will drop to zero if Bush has his way. Republicans traditionally oppose giving money to private businesses for research, which they are quick to call corporate welfare.

KERRY: In the last several years, the senator proposed or backed several multibillion-dollar programs to promote industrial innovation, in-cluding $10 billion for research to develop a system that uses hydrogen as a fuel. He says he will also support additional funding for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and NASA. “Research funded by the federal government,” Kerry says, “can pave the way for new innovation and advancements in high-growth fields.” Among the original sponsors of the Advanced Technology Program, the senator has been a strong supporter, arguing that it can produce high-payoff research when venture capitalists are not willing to risk an investment. In speeches and statements during his senate career, Kerry has often stressed the importance of government-supported research for stimulating economic development and job creation. Massachusetts, with its many high-tech firms and university-backed start-up companies, is a beneficiary of government research support aimed at economic development.

BUT: In these matters, as in others where Kerry or Bush promise more support for science and technology, a provocative question remains: Where will the money come from?

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