Saturday, November 1, 2008

Will Barack Obama be good for science?

Many of my friends whose blogs are on the side panel have been much exercised about the Obama-McCain US presidential campaign. Many have been surprised that I have said nothing about this till now. My main reason is that so much has been written about this campaign by every shade of public opinion, that very little is left to be said, irrespective of one's political leanings. I therefore would like to discuss one issue which has not been discussed as much -- will an Obama presidency be better than the Bush presidency as regards funding for science (and I mean science, not ID) goes. Some skeptics like Bob Park who writes the weekly 'What's New' column have not been too sure of the answer, mainly on account of the fact that science hardly figures in either candidates' stump speeches or their manifestos (given the free-falling economy that is not a surprise but it didn't figure even earlier). However, even a die-hard skeptic like him has now endorsed Senator Obama, given the horror on the other side. Moreover, for the first time the journal Nature has endorsed Obama. Finally, Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel Laureate who first postulated quarks as fundamental constituents of matter, along with 76 other Nobel Laureates, has endorsed Barack Obama and you can see him live, reading from the endorsement letter at the Cosmic Variance blog or on YouTube. In the face of such heavy duty endorsements, who am I to throw a stone? But I wonder, has Obama every made a clear statement regarding evolution vs. intelligent design, or about stem-cell research or about climate change? To give him the benefit of doubt, Obama, as a consummate politician is not going to burn any bridges to win this election, which could be one reason for not stating his position clearly on such issues, thereby perhaps antagonising whole swathes of the population in the mid-West. It's also difficult to imagine science faring worse under him than under George W. Bush, though here is John Marburger pointing out why indeed the Bush presidency has been good for science funding.


Oliver said...

In answer to your question about clear statements, here are a couple of responses from the Obama campaign to questions from Nature (

Nature: Do you believe that evolution by means of natural selection is a sufficient explanation for the variety and complexity of life on Earth? Should intelligent design, or some derivative thereof, be taught in science class in public schools?

Obama: I believe in evolution, and I support the strong consensus of the scientific community that evolution is scientifically validated. I do not believe it is helpful to our students to cloud discussions of science with non-scientific theories like intelligent design that are not subject to experimental scrutiny.

Nature: Would you lift President Bush's ban on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem-cell lines derived after 9 August 2001? Under what conditions do you find it acceptable to create a human embryonic stem-cell line?

Obama: Stem-cell research holds the promise of improving our lives in at least three ways — by substituting normal cells for damaged cells to treat diabetes, Parkinson's disease, spinal-cord injury, heart failure and other disorders; by providing scientists with safe and convenient models of disease for drug development; and by helping to understand fundamental aspects of normal development and cell dysfunction.

For these reasons, I strongly support expanding research on stem cells. I believe that the restrictions that President Bush has placed on the funding of human embryonic stem-cell research have handcuffed our scientists and hindered our ability to compete with other nations. As president, I will lift the current administration's ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem-cell lines created after 9 August 2001 through executive order, and I will ensure that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight.

Rahul Basu said...

Oliver: thanks for the link and the clarification. I am happy to see a possible future President of the US taking a clear and unambiguous line on these issues.

Kapil said...
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Rahul Siddharthan said...

I think the question (as in many other matters) will not be "will he be better than Bush" but "can he be worse than Sarah Palin". The answer is certainly no. As you say, he may not want to state his views on evolution in public, but he is an intelligent and educated man.

It is incredible that McCain, trying to differentiate himself from Bush, chose a running mate who makes Bush look intellectual and progressive. And thought that would appeal to Hillary's base.

(Forestalling Anant here: Yes it matters to all of us, and no I don't see why the US should concern itself with Pratibha Patil -- we ourselves barely do).

Rahul Siddharthan said...

ps - I posted before leaving Oliver's clarification. I am impressed by Obama's clarity but don't expect that he would say this in the American mainstream media (though I'm happy to be proved wrong).

Rahul Basu said...

Rahul: Yes, indeed it's one thing to make a clear statement to Nature and another to repudiate creationism and ID publicly which might cost him a fair number of votes. In fact, I am fine with this ambiguity if it helps to put him in the White House. My hope is that once (if) ensconced there, he should be willing to put his money where his mouth is.

About why people are not exercised as much about Pratibha Patil as about Obama, the answer should be obvious - but then that's a different blog and a different post so I should comment there I suppose.