Techier than Thou: Obama and McCain’s Showdown on Science Research

In our penultimate column, we explore whether one candidate has a record better indicating support for scientific research

Question 13: Research Funding

With the economy in shambles and the debt spiraling out of control, many worry that the government will start cutting programs to save money. And despite its pre-crises print date, Science Debate 2008 question 13 implies a fear that scientific research funding will get cut first. But neither candidate’s answer directly addresses the question of how they would balance the general lack of funds the next president will face against their desire to raise research budgets. And that is, mostly, likely because neither would have to.

Both McCain and Obama have a strong history of supporting funding for a wide range of government agencies involved in scientific research. In previous installments of this series, we looked at McCain and Obama’s legislative history as it pertains to stem cells, space exploration,alternative energy, genetics research and defense research. In all of those cases, we saw two senators with a history of supporting scientific research at every opportunity. And for those worrying whether Obama or McCain could afford to fund research in the current economic climate, they can take heart that the government spends so little on scientific research that cutting it wouldn’t really make that much of a difference anyway.

“The dollars required to make differences one way or the other are not unaffordable in the general economic picture,” said Scott Price, a former member of the Commerce Department under the first President Bush and Director of the Space Policy Institute, “the question is will they be prioritized.”

But how affordable are they? In 2008, the National Science Foundation received approximately $6 billion dollars in funds, the National Institute of Health received around $29 billion, DARPA received in about $3 billion and the 2008 NASA budget came in at around $17.6 billion.

Sounds like a lot, until you compare it with the rest of the Federal budget. In 2008, Congress authorized $1.14 trillion in discretionary spending. That means all of the science funding listed above only amounted to 4.8 percent% of the discretionary federal budget, or about 2 percent of the total government spending for 2008. The 2008 interest on the national debt alone was over four times greater than the above listed budgets.

Ultimately, the question isn’t which candidate will fund more research, but what research will they fund? Considering the wide range of action both candidates have taken regarding scientific research (which we have detailed in previous installments of this series) it is safe to say that the candidates’ records back up their promises of robust support for NIH, NSF, DARPA, DOE, NASA and any other acronyms that fund science. Tomorrow we close out the series with the Science Debate health question. Will the candidates answer the question or just talk about Joe the Plumber’s insurance? Come back tomorrow to find out.