Candidates' differences revealed on spending
US President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney outline details of their proposals for spending on science in the lead up to voting on November 6th
IF ASKED to identify the most important date in the scientific calendar of 2012, you might reply July 4th (the announcement of the Higgs boson) or August 6th (the landing of Curiosity on Mars). However, on November 6th, the US elections will bring to power a president with the ability to shape the future of science in the US and influence global trends.
Both candidates agreed to respond to 14 questions on science, ranging from innovation and the economy to vaccination and public health. This initiative came from scientists and citizens, with sponsorship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the US National Academies, Council on Competitiveness and Scientific American ( sciencedebate.org).
Both candidates recognise the importance of funding research. President Barack Obama strongly supports investments in research and development to help spur American innovation and targets more than 3 per cent of GDP in public and private research and development. This would exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race. Romney declares himself a strong supporter of federally-funded research, and continued funding would be a top priority in his budget. However, Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, plans to cut non-defence-related research by 5 per cent, which would be below the current incumbent’s plan for 2013. He supports continued investment in basic research but would reduce spending for applied research, as he says this should be done by industry.
In 2008, Obama committed to doubling federal funding for basic research; increased funding to the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the National Cancer Institute. An analysis by the (AAAS) shows that National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding has fallen from $31.2 billion (€24.25bn) in 2009 to $30 billion (€23.3bn) in 2012. In contrast, National Science Foundation (NSF) spending rose from $5 billion (€3.9bn) to $5.6 billion (€4.4bn). Overall total federal RD has dropped from $152.6 billion (€118.6bn) in 2009 to $140.5 billion (€109.2bn) in 2012. The AAAS estimates that basic research funding rose from $29.5 billion (€22.9bn) in 2009 to $30.2 billion (€23.5bn) in 2012. There was a once-off investment of $20 billion (€15.6bn) boost to federal RD in 2009 through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The 2012 Democratic party policy advocates a doubling of funding for the key basic research agencies.
Both parties look to help companies develop innovative technologies by creating a permanent research and development tax credit. This recognises that industry accounts for more that 70 per cent of RD spend.Companies can deduct certain research expenses from their tax bill, but only for a few years at a time. They contend that a permanent credit would allow companies to plan long term and encourage them to invest in risky projects.
The Republican platform favours “a policy of strategic immigration, granting more work visas to holders of advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math from other nations” – the Democrats are in agreement. This recognises that more than 50 per cent of PhD graduates in science and engineering are students from outside the US. Indeed, in some engineering disciplines, more than 80 per cent of the PhD graduates are foreign. In the past this was not a problem, since the majority elected to remain in the US. Now countries such as China and South Korea have put schemes in place to encourage their graduates to return. Both parties agree that foreign-born PhD graduates should be encouraged to remain in the US to build innovative businesses and create jobs.
There is no doubt that both parties have significant differences on issues such as global warming, energy policy and stem-cell research. Both see scientific evidence shaping public policy, although the Republicans would give it less significance and would be less interventionist and favour small government. Both candidates recognise the fundamental role of science and engineering in economic development. Obama says: “I am committed to doubling funding for key research agencies to support scientists and entrepreneurs, so that we can preserve America’s place as the world leader in innovation, and strengthen US leadership in the 21st century’s high-tech knowledge-based economy.”
Romney says: “We must never forget that the US has moved forward in astonishing ways thanks to national investment in basic research and advanced technology. As president, I will focus government resources on research programs that advance the development of knowledge, and on technologies with widespread application and potential to serve as the foundation for private-sector innovation and commercialisation.”
Conor O’Carroll is research director in the Irish Universities Association. iua.ie