IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The surrogate science debate

Science / Comstock / Corbis

For weeks, science-minded activists have been urging the presidential campaigns to stage a debate focusing on science and technology issues - and they finally got their wish over the weekend. Sort of.

Not a single presidential candidate was in sight at Saturday's event, organized as part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting. Instead, the advisers on technology policy for Democratic hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama took turns answering questions about what their bosses would do if they were president. The face-off was far too sedate to be called a debate, but in some ways it was an eerie reflection of the bigger, bare-knuckled battle for the Democratic nomination.

On one side of the speaker's table was Thomas Kalil, the Clinton campaign's adviser on science, technology and innovation. Kalil spent eight years in the White House during the Bill Clinton administration, eventually rising to become the deputy assistant to the president for technology and economic policy, as well as deputy director of the National Economic Council. He's now assistant to the chancellor for technology policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

On the other side was Alec Ross, the Obama campaign's adviser on technology, media and telecommunications. Ross is also executive vice president for external affairs and co-founder of One Economy Corp., a nonprofit group that has helped extend broadband networks to low-income neighborhoods.

In the middle was moderator Claudia Dreifus, a New York Times science reporter. As for the missing Republicans: John McCain's campaign couldn't arrange to attend in time for the last-minute addition to the meeting's agenda, said Albert Teich, AAAS' director of science and policy programs.

"We did not hear from Governor [Mike] Huckabee or Ron Paul," Teich told the hundreds of attendees who filled the seats at one of the Hynes Convention Center's biggest meeting rooms.

Kalil started out with a PowerPoint presentation outlining Clinton's platform on science and technology: Spending on federal research would be doubled over the course of 10 years. Tax credits for research and experimentation would become permanent. Tuition tax credits and research fellowships would be expanded.

He said Clinton endorsed the creation of a research agency for energy technology, an upgrade for the post of science adviser, and the restoration of the Office of Technology Assessment. Kalil said Clinton would "restore integrity to science policy" - referring back to past cases in which the Bush administration was accused of bending scientific findings to fit political positions.

"This is wrong and has to stop," Kalil said.

Ross had no computer presentation. Instead, he referred his listeners to the Obama campaign's Web site, saying that "what we have is an extraordinary amount of specific detail." Among the high points: Federal money for basic research would be doubled in five years' time. A nationwide interoperable wireless network would be created for emergency services, finally following through on a 9/11 commission recommendation.

Obama would call for $10 billion per year to be spent on a five-year transition to electronic medical recordkeeping, and $150 billion to be spent over 10 years to promote biofuels, plug-in hybrid cars and other emerging energy technologies. A clean-technology venture capital fund would be set up with $10 billion to invest annually for five years. The money collected for the telecom industry's Universal Service Fund would go exclusively to extending advanced broadband networks rather than funding "yesterday's technology."

"I think that we've gone very far in helping to set a North Star for where we want America to go over the next four and eight years in the science and technology space," Ross said.

What are the differences?

It's interesting to note that both candidates are on board  for a doubling in federal research funds ... just as President Bush is. (The trick is getting Congress to go along without loading up the legislation with earmarks.)

As Dreifus sifted through the written questions handed in by the audience, she asked each aide to spell out what distinguished his candidate from the other guy's when it came to science and technology issues.

Kalil said Clinton was "the only candidate who has devoted an entire speech to this issue, and she's also been more specific on the types of research investment that she believes are necessary to restore America's economic competitiveness." (Here's a recap of that speech.)

"I would simply respond to that by [saying,] go to the Web sites and actually check who is far more detailed - both in terms of breadth as well as in terms of detail," Ross answered.

Each aide also said his respective candidate would outshine McCain on science and technology issues. (What else would you expect them to say?) Ross noted disapprovingly that McCain once said "he would assign things that are 'less important,' like technology, to his vice president." (Here's more on that quote.)

For his part, Kalil acknowledged that McCain "has distinguished himself from some of the other Republicans," specifically on addressing climate change. "However, if you look at the positions that he's taken so far on science and technology, they're almost non-existent," Kalil said.

The two aides came the closest to drawing an actual contrast when it came to space policy - specifically, NASA's $104 billion plan to retire the shuttle fleet and return to the moon in a new type of spaceship. Kalil said Clinton believes that "it's necessary to maintain an emphasis on human exploration as part of the NASA program, but she also believes that we need to have support for the Earth sciences program," particularly for studying climate change.

In the past, the Obama campaign has hinted that the moon effort might be put on hold to help fund education programs, and last month the SpaceRef Web site passed along a more detailed statement on space policy, attributed to the campaign. But Ross played it coy on Saturday.

"I'm not allowed to scoop anything, but anticipate some specific policies on NASA and specific to space exploration in the next month," Ross said. He did hint that climate research might play a bigger role in the Obama administration's NASA - and that the Bush administration's vision might be in for revision.

Ross said that when President Bush announced the moon program, just over four years ago, Obama "responded at the time with skepticism, and I think that skepticism has been validated in the time since." Ross' reference wasn't immediately clear, but this cached article from the Chicago Sun-Times includes the requisite note of skepticism from Obama, who was running for the Senate at the time.

And the winner is ...

If Saturday's session is any guide, science and technology issues won't be significant factors in the Clinton vs. Obama duel. But the surrogate debate did bring politics into the spotlight during the nation's premier meeting on science and technology - and some in the audience took it pretty seriously.

One woman, for example, told me she thought Ross seemed so young and inexperienced that she stopped payment on the check she had just sent to the Obama campaign. She says she's now undecided. (She asked that her name not be used because she didn't want her employer and clients to know her political views.)

On the flip side, a couple of people told me that Kalil seemed so much a part of the tired old political establishment - and Ross seemed so passionate and well-spoken - that they were more inclined to support Obama.

Oddly enough, that divide between experience and passion, between the head and the heart, seems to reflect the key distinction between Clinton and Obama. And we're not even talking about the candidates themselves, but just a couple of their advisers!

Perhaps there'd be some real fireworks if the candidates showed up in person to go after each other on science and technology issues. The coalition known as Science Debate 2008 is hoping for just that, and has invited Clinton and Obama as well as McCain and Huckabee to an April 18 event in Philadelphia.

Would Clinton show up? "Time will tell," Kalil said. And Obama? "It's being given very serious consideration," Ross said.

"I was very encouraged to hear that," said Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Case Western Reserve University and one of the prime movers behind Science Debate 2008. He told me that he rates the chances of the April debate actually happening at 20 percent, which is far more optimistic than he was feeling a week ago.

However, if you had to have just one debate on science and technology, it'd be better to have it between the Democratic and Republican nominees, after the conventions. At least that's the view of former Defense Secretary William Perry, who chaired the committee behind a new list of Grand Challenges for Engineering.

Such a debate would have a better chance of highlighting genuine differences on embryonic stem cell research, on nuclear power and other energy issues, on the balance between scientific openness and national security ... and the list goes on. No matter who scores the most debating points, voters who are anxious to hear the candidates' visions for America's future would come out the winners.

What do you think? Feel free to weigh in with your political strategies in the comment section below. If you're looking for more information about Saturday's surrogate debate, check out the reports from the journal Science as well as from AFP, The Guardian, Congressional Quarterly, Discover Magazine and Space Politics. And for updates on the wider campaign, click on over to our political coverage.