ScienceDebate2008 has come up with 14 questions they would like to see answered by the US presidential candidates. This group has been pushing for a science policy-focused debate among presidential candidates. That debate is looking more and more unlikely, but in an effort to keep some of the election focus on science, this group is now urging the candidates to answer a set of questions on science policy (abbreviated below - go read the questions in full at the ScienceDebate2008 site):

1. What policies will you support to ensure that America remains the world leader in innovation?

2. What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change—a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research?

3. What policies would you support to meet demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

4. What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century?

5. What is your view of how science and technology can best be used to ensure national security and where should we put our focus?

6. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from global pandemics or deliberate biological attacks?

7. What is the right policy balance between the benefits of genetic advances and their potential risks?

8. What is your position on government regulation and funding of stem cell research?

9. What steps, if any, should the United States take during your presidency to protect ocean health?

10. What policies would you support to meet demand for water resources?

11. How would you prioritize space [exploration] in your administration?

12. Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making?

13. Given that the next Congress will likely face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in basic research in upcoming budgets?

14. How do you see science, research and technology contributing to improved health and quality of life?

I like these questions better than the previous set of 7 questions for Congressional candidates. It's true that with 14 questions, you can ask about a more diverse range of topics than you can with 7 - these questions include important areas like ocean health, flu pandemics, and the connection between technology and national security.

I'm glad to see that this time the questions do not avoid controversy, asking about stem cell research (although the question neglects to point out that the controversy is only about human embryonic stem cell research) and political interference in the scientific reports produced by government agencies.

Both of these questions are critical. Take stem cells for example: the US government has to decide whether it's going to continue to bow out of a scientific field that has great potential, and which has seen great advances in basic science in the last few years. Current federal regulations on embryonic stem cell research not only deny US stem cell researchers a major source of funding, but they also force scientists into an either-or choice: if you accept federal funding for non-stem cell research (or non-human stem cell research), you cannot also get private funding for human embryonic stem cell research in the same lab.

For example, imagine a lab that does research on human adult stem cells, funded by the NIH. Suppose the scientist leading that lab received an offer from a private organization to pay for human embryonic stem cell research in the same lab - maybe to apply an innovative technique in the lab to embryonic stem cells. US regulations make it prohibitively difficult for that scientist to accept NIH funding for adult stem cell research, and private funding for embryonic stem cell research. To follow US regulations, the lab would essentially need to set up completely independent facilities, with different staff and stocks of supplies, to do the embryonic stem cell work.

What this means is that even if there were plenty of private money to do embryonic stem cell research, most US researchers still would have to stay out of the field.

The ScienceDebate2008 crew also commissioned a poll on science and the election ("Americans are much more likely to vote for a candidate that will tackle major science issues"). I don't think the results are very surprising - for years, polls asking broad questions like the ones in this poll have found that Americans generally support research funding, science education, and science-based policy making. When you get into the details of specific policies, the poll (and actual policy) results can be more muddled.

One poll result was interesting: the respondents were about evenly split on this question: "Do you think that America is doing more or less than other nations to be a world leader in science and technology?"

It's a difficult question to answer because there is no single metric that provides the answer. Every 4 years, the US National Science Foundation takes a crack at answering this question, and 2008 results are interesting. The US and Japan spend the most on R&D, but in terms of percent of GDP spent on R&D, the US ranks 7th, behind smaller countries like Sweden, Finland, and Japan. Three large countries will soon be in tight competition with tthe US for science and technology leadership: Brazil, India, and China are all making very large increases in their R&D expenditures.

In terms of actual scientific research, the US and the UK easily lead the world in scientific publications in top journals (population size among developed nations has something to do with this; for example Canada and Denmark produce excellent science, but with fewer people), but here again, we can expect the competition to grow. This competition will grow more slowly than the spending competition, because it is easier to increase your R&D budget than to build world-class scientific research institutions. But within a few decades, we can expect to see Chinese, Indian and Brazilian universities rising the way Japanese institutions did after World War II.

What does this all mean? Is the US doing everything it can to stay "a world leader in science and technology?" It's inevitable that scientific leadership is going to be more competitive, and just because other nations are improving their science capabilities doesn't mean that US capabilities are declining.

However, there are some problematic trends:

1. Federal research funding has been too unpredictable, making it difficult to sustain some of the long-term investments that the NIH, the NSF, and NASA have made. Congress doubled the NIH budget over 5 years from 1998-2003, but since then it hasn't kept pace with inflation, resulting in eroding support for both small and large research projects started over those 5 years. The US Congress wants to give the NSF a badly needed budget doubling, similar to what the NIH got, but in recent years, the increases fall through at the last minute, making it difficult for researchers writing grant proposals to know what kind of funding they can count on.

2. Culturally, the US may be devaluing science at a time when other competing nations are becoming more committed to science. Brown biologist Ken Miller argues this in his latest book on the creation/evolution controversy, Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul (expect a review in this column soon). Echoing Allan Bloom, he argues that we are living more and more in a culture in which "the worst sort of bigotry is associated with coming to a decision on the basis of evidence." Whether it is evolution vs. intelligent design, or politicians vs. the Reality-Based Community, more and more it is acceptable to argue that facts can tell us anything we want them to tell us. An attitude for which Allan Bloom once excoriated the Academic left is now use by Biblical literalists and politicians alike to undermine our culture's confidence in the effectiveness of the scientific method. If science is no more likely to produce knowledge about the world than any other "way of knowing", then why should we fund it? Why should we encourage our kids to study it in school?

Of course science hasn't stopped producing real physical successes, from genetically modified glowing fish and 45nm quad-core processors, to next-generation sequencing machines and discoveries of extra-solar planets. But these successes didn't come from magic, and a culture that appreciates the results of science, but not the process, is not a culture that will continue to produce great scientific results.

In any case, on the subject of science and the US Presidential Election, there is a lot to talk about, and ScienceDebate2008's 14 questions are a good place to start.