An Issue of National Security: Obama and McCain on DARPA

It's 3 AM, that phone is ringing; will their records back their claims?

Question Five: National Security

It's 3 AM, and your children are sleeping soundly. But somewhere, a phone is ringing. America's safety is in trouble, and the president has veto power over the bills that propose the programs that might develop the methods that could eventually save your kids from something. As in the previous election, national security is a major issue. Can science help protect the nation? The candidates said they think so, but does their record support that claim?

When talking about defense and science, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Famous for inventing the Internet, DARPA conducts direct research in nearly every imaginable scientific discipline and gives out millions of dollars in grants every year for further research. When Senator McCain referred to "benefiting today from technology that was invented for military use a quarter of a century ago (e.g. the Internet, e-mail, GPS, Teflon)" in his Science Debate answer, DARPA is what he was talking about.

And up to this point, McCain and Obama have had no say on the budget of DARPA. Every year the Department of Defense submits a proposed budget to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, which neither candidate sits on. Considering the Defense Appropriation Bills contain funding for a wide range of programs and almost always pass unanimously (sometimes one or two Senators vote nay to make a point), McCain and Obama's thoughts about DARPA cannot be read in their votes for Defense Appropriations Bills.

If you want to affect the DARPA budget, you have to sit on the Appropriations Committee. Like the current head of the committee Senator Robert C. Byrd (D, West Virginia), who voted to increase DARPA's budget increases every year, with the budget for 2009 standing at around $3 billion. Certainly a $4 million a year DARPA program based at the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing at Marshal University did not factor into his judgment.

DARPA is not the only source of defense and science research, as the Defense Appropriations Bill for 2009 also included $11,468,959,000 for science and technology research programs conducted by various branches of the Department of Defense. But again, that money appears in a bill funding the $515.4 billion a year US military, so the money for DARPA doesn't really grab the interest of many Senators.

While Obama's answer also touches on the relationship between security and energy policy (read about his energy policy in this previous installment of the series), the majority of the candidates' responses do not seem to have a history in their years as legislators. Tomorrow we look at candidates' positions on protecting Americaa from pandemic bird flu.

After a year of winnowing down questions from 38,000 scientists and citizens, Science Debate 2008 sent 14 covering health, research, the environment and science to the presidential candidates. Both Senator McCain and Senator Obama answered the questions, and their answers can be read here. However, it's easy for a politician to make promises, so _PopSci investigated both senator's voting records to see if their history matched up with their promises for the future. Each day for the next two weeks we'll present an analysis of the candidate's voting records as compared with their answers to the ScienceDebate2008 questions. You can follow the entire series at popsci.com/election, where you can also sign up for an RSS feed._

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