September 9, 2012

Science and the Election: Questions for Obama and Romney

Science and technology policy has been recognized as an integral component of the Presidential election cycle for the past several elections. The organization  has managed to place a set of science policy questions before the presidential candidates in 2008 and again this year; President Obama and Governor Romney have answered the questions here. It’s clear that the major political parties, based on ideological and process preferences, differ on how the (federal) government should be involved in the operation of American science operates and in how its emerging technologies should be regulated by government. One policy lever is fiscal: the decision to authorize spending on “big science” (e.g., space exploration or the Human Genome Project) or to calibrate annual funding levels for the major federal research agencies (in the case of life sciences, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are closely watched). Those decisions are on the input side. On the output side, what happens to the technologies produced with the help of federal monies?  Here are such critical issues of regulation as those governing genetically engineered food and crops, genetic testing, nanotechnologies, and stem cell research. Although Obama and Romney provide general remarks to the set of general question, there is an absence of any details regarding some critical and pressing issues in the biotech-related life sciences:, e.g., authorization of (embryonic) stem cell research, labeling of genetically engineered (GE) food, or how the government manages dual-use research and disclosure with bioterrorist potential  For example, the 2008 questionnaire specifically asked about genetics research and embryonic stem cell research. Obama's policies are evident from his record (e.g., yes to embryonic stem cell research, no to regulation or mandatory labeling of GE food). The current set of questions did not require either candidate to be specific on those issues. In general, with respect to the formation of government policy for the life sciences, the president has an Office of Science and Technology Policy (since 1976), and the last several presidents have created their own bioethics-related advisory panels (Obama's is here) to study current controversies. Despite that, this election-year project to focus the (major) presidential candidates on the role of science in today’s government portfolio is useful, but more explicit questioning on the actual issues confronting regulatory agencies and legislatures would place the very real policy differences between the candidates in sharper focus.

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