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Candidates speak out on science

Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have responded to a

14-question presidential campaign quiz on science and technology issues.

GOP presidential candidate John McCain has joined Democrat Barack Obama in providing answers to 14 questions on science and technology. On two of the campaign's biggest science issues - climate change and stem cell research - the rivals aren't all that far apart, at least when you look at the big picture.

The questions were posed by Science Debate 2008, which has been working to raise the visibility of sci-tech issues in the campaign for nine months. The grass-roots group couldn't get the candidates together for a debate during the presidential primary season, but today's answers from McCain have finally turned the project into a two-party system. (Obama provided his answers to the 14-question quiz two weeks ago.)

"Most of America's major unsolved challenges revolve around these 14 questions," Science Debate 2008's chief executive officer, Minnesota screenwriter Shawn Otto, said today in a statement laying out McCain's answers. "To move America forward, the next president needs a substantive plan for tackling them going in, and voters deserve to know what that plan is."

Both candidates declare that technological innovation will be key for America's future, but each puts his party's particular political spin on proposals for promoting that innovation. Obama stresses the need for increased funding for basic research and education. McCain says he would provide "broad pools of capital, low taxes and incentives for research in America." He'd also streamline regulations and "eliminate wasteful earmarks in order to allocate funds for science and technology investments."

Climate change and energy

McCain's biggest departures from the traditional GOP spin come when he's talking about climate change and stem cells. For example, the party's conventional wisdom calls for a go-slow approach to doing something about greenhouse-gas emissions, but McCain has always bucked the trend.

Like Obama, McCain calls for a cap-and-trade system to encourage a departure from the carbon-based energy economy, with a reduction of carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Obama would like to see further reductions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 - McCain calls for a 60 percent reduction by that time. (Actually, it'll be up to successors in the White House to hit any of those goals.)

Both candidates give a nod to alternative energy sources (including nuclear power) as well as higher energy efficiency and cleaner-burning coal. McCain mentions specific proposals such as a tax credit of up to $5,000 for zero-emission cars and his plan for a $300 million prize program for better batteries. Obama serves up a smorgasbord of proposals in a $150 billion, 10-year R&D program.

Stem cell research

Embryonic stem cell research is another area where McCain has parted ways with the Bush administration in the past. Like Obama, McCain supported the expansion of federal funding in that area - even though President Bush vetoed the measure.

Some political observers wondered whether McCain would change his tune now that he's the GOP standard-bearer. His answer to ScienceDebate 2008's question indicates that the tune is still the same, but the volume has been turned down.

"While I support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, I believe clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress," McCain says. "Moreover, I believe that recent scientific breakthroughs raise the hope that one day this debate will be rendered academic."

McCain is referring to last year's dramatic finding that skin cells could be chemically converted into cells that appear to have the stemlike ability to transform themselves into a variety of tissue types. That research raised hopes that embryonic cells may not be necessary to create patient-specific tissues for transplant or medical testing. However, even the discoverers of the technique say embryonic stem cells will remain the "gold standard" for regenerative medicine - and the moral and ethical debate isn't likely to become academic anytime during the next four years.

Obama promises to ease the current limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research by executive order, while making sure "that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight."

... And much, much more

When the answers to the other questions are put side by side, it's clear that each candidate devotes the most attention to his own familiar political territory: For example, Obama provides more specifics on health care. McCain lays out a more detailed agenda for space exploration, including references to commercial spaceflight and efforts to bridge NASA's spaceflight gap. In contrast, Obama's big space pitch focuses on reviving the National Aeronautics and Space Council.

The topics covered in Science Debate 2008's questionnaire range from national security and bioterrorism to water and ocean policy. You'll want to check out the full rundown, as well as other comparisons of the candidates' stands that are sure to emerge in the next seven weeks.

Are any of these issues likely to come up in a real-time, head-to-head debate? That question itself is debatable - but Science Debate 2008's president, Matthew Chapman, is holding out hope.

"Science Debate 2008 and its partners once again extend an invitation to both candidates to attend a televised forum where these vital issues can be discussed in front of a broader audience," Chapman said.