The Record Behind the Words: Unpacking ScienceDebate2008

Sure the candidates said the right things, but do their records match their rhetoric? As part of a two-week investigative series, Popular Science looks into the voting record of Senators McCain and Obama

Last year a group of six scientists and journalists began compiling a list of the most important science-related questions the presidential candidates should answer. The result was ScienceDebate2008, a project that eventually expanded to include input from 38,000 scientists and citizens, who sent in 3,400 questions. Working with various scientific organizations, the six founders narrowed the submissions down to 14 questions about health, research, the environment and science.

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 Popular Science 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.

Are the candidates all sizzle and no steak? Or do they have the record to back up their claims? Let’s take a look.

Question One: Innovation

The first ScienceDebate2008 question asks, “What policies will you support to ensure that America remains the world leader in innovation?” Not surprisingly, the candidates took the not-so-bold stance of being for innovation.

In Obama’s case, that means funding science and math education, making the research and development tax credit permanent and increasing National Science Foundation graduate fellowships. McCain answered that he would appoint a Science and Technology Advisor to the White House and send Americans back to the Moon and onwards towards Mars.

Due to only being in the Senate for one term, Obama’s record on innovation is somewhat sparse. While he did support elements HR 6, a giant, multifaceted energy bill that funneled tens of billions of dollars into alternative energy research, and HR 810 and S 5, stem cell research bills, he was not in a position to affect the funding of the NIH or NSF during his term in Congress. While a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Obama voted for a resolution to increase elementary and secondary school funding generally, but not math and science in particular. However, Obama did sponsor S 2392 and S 2428, bills that would make an online database of science, technology, engineering and math scholarships and other programs of financial assistance. Neither bill has even been voted on, but his ScienceDebate2008 answer echoes the language of those bills.

Senator McCain has a much richer legacy of votes regarding innovation during his 22 years in the Senate. His record backs up his claim about supporting manned missions to the Moon and Mars. Senator McCain has almost always supported NASA, and in 2005 voted for HR 2862, which allocated “$22.11 billion for scientific activities including $16.46 billion for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and $4.58 billion for the National Science Foundation.” McCain even supported NASA over his fellow veterans when in 1998 he voted against an amendment to the bill S 2168, that would terminate the International Space Station program and use the money to provide housing for low-income families and veterans.

Some mystery remains around McCain’s ScienceDebate claim that, “Under my guiding hand, Congress developed a wireless spectrum policy that spurred the rapid rise of mobile phones and Wi-Fi . . . ” While it is true that the FCC opened up the frequencies that would later be used by Wi-Fi, they did so without Congressional prodding. Regardless, Senator McCain was serving in the House of Representatives at the time, and thus could not have exercised any oversight regarding the decision. Furthermore, McCain voted against the Omnibus Spending Bill of 1993 (HR 2264) that opened Wi-Fi frequencies up for commercial use. The McCain campaign has yet to mention which bill in particular Senator McCain was referring to when he made the claim, making it even harder to verify.

So other than the Al Gore-esque claim that McCain invented Wi-Fi, the first bunch of ScienceDebate answers seem well supported by the candidates’ legislative histories. Come back tomorrow when we examine their answers regarding climate change.