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US Presidential Candidates Say Science Matters

While the war in Iraq and the U.S. economy have thus far dominated the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, American voters are likely to hear more from the candidates on science and technology issues when the two meet in their upcoming televised policy debates. Their perspectives are the subject of a special Election Issue of the British science journal, Nature. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.

Alexandra Witze, the Washington bureau chief for Nature, sums up what is at stake in the November presidential election, no matter who wins.

"Issues like: What are we going to do in terms of energy? How are we going to develop energy policies that are best for the country? How are we going to take our biomedical research enterprise so that we can start to do research that leads to cures for [diseases afflicting] the American people?" Witze asks. "How much should we be investing in science and technology in order to stimulate the economic engine of our country? These are questions that go far beyond the special interest group of scientists themselves."

Candidates Support Limits on Harmful Greenhouse Gases, Investment in Energy Technology

Witze says federal science policies will play a major role in how these questions are resolved. On climate change, for example, both candidates advocate a mandatory cap-and-trade system. That would set limits on harmful greenhouse gas emissions that have been linked to global warming. Republican Sen. John McCain proposed such a law five years ago, but it did not win much support in Congress.

"And I think that it is going to mean a big change for the country to where we have been for the past eight years, when carbon dioxide has not been regulated at the level we are going to be looking at in the next couple of years," Witze says.

Both McCain and his chief rival, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, have also promised to make investment in energy technologies a priority, although Witze says the two men differ in their approach.

"Obama, for instance, is talking about [an investment of] $150 billion -- that is billion with a 'B' -- in energy technologies over the next 10 years," Witze says. "McCain has introduced something he calls the 'Lexington Project,' that he [has named] after the town in Massachusetts where the American Revolution got started.

"He is trying to make the point that America needs an energy revolution as well," Witze says. "It consists of a grab bag [variety] of renewable energy projects, a $2 billion investment in clean coal technologies and new nuclear plants."

McCain wants to build 45 nuclear power plants by 2030. But he does not address where the nuclear waste would go. Obama takes a more cautious approach. Before the expansion of nuclear power is even considered, Obama has said, "key issues must be addressed, including security of nuclear fuel and waste."

Obama Supports Stem Cell Research, McCain Takes More Complex Stance

Another hot-button issue in the campaign is research on human embryonic stem cells - a potentially valuable source for new medical therapies. But because embryonic cells are extracted from human fetal tissue, many religious groups have raised strong moral objections. As a result, the Bush White House has sharply restricted federal research funds in this area.

"You can use federal money to do research on human embryonic stem cell lines, but only on lines that had been created on the day he gave that announcement, which was August 2001," Witze says. "So basically, you are talking about cell lines that are seven years old."

Obama told the journal Nature that he "strongly supports expanding research on stem cells" and would lift the federal funding ban. Witze says McCain's position is more complex. As a senator, he voted twice to lift the ban, but on the campaign trail he speaks more about alternative approaches to stem cell lines.

"He is walking that political line with trying to maintain votes with perhaps his core base who are not supportive of this kind of reproductive medicine," Witze says.

McCain's vice presidential pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin - who is closely aligned with religious evangelicals and other social conservatives - doesn't support embryonic stem cell research.

Candidates' Advisers May Provide Clues to Policy Agendas

Witze says voters can get a glimpse of the next president's policy agenda through his closest advisors. A former head of the National Institutes of Health leads Obama's science team, largely made up of renowned academics including Nobel laureates who have turned to social activism. McCain has tapped corporation leaders and former Senate staffers.

"He also has a really experienced staff from the time when he ran the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation," Witze says. "So he has a number of staffers there who worked with him, for instance, on helping respond to the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003, folks who have helped him put together platforms in how we should be investing in science and technology, whether or not we should be loosening immigration requirements so that trained scientists and engineers who come to America for graduate school can then stay in the country and contribute."

How McCain and Obama respond to these and other issues could help determine which candidate wins the presidential election on Nov. 4. The new president's success after that may rest in how he gets along with the new Congress. All 435 lawmakers in the House of Representatives are up for re-election, as are one-third of those in the Senate.