obama answers sciencedebate 2008


I haven’t had a chance to plug Science Debate 2008 yet because, to be perfectly frank, up until a few days ago I had kind of given up. Despite a pretty resounding call by the scientific community and some big names in (sadly) what seems to be a pretty small pond as far as politics go, neither McCain nor the two potential democratic candidates agreed to appear in a science and science policy specific debate. I had always kind of viewed it as something of a pipe-dream.

Then, lo and behold, briefly after the oratory splendor of Obama’s campaign speech (say what you will about Obama – I’m not 100% on the bandwagon yet, but the man is a hell of a speaker), he’s provided 14 fairly lengthy responses to the ScienceDebate organization. Not a live debate, but on the heels of him mentioning science and innovation repeatedly in his DNC speech, it’s somewhat reassuring that at least one of the candidates might commit to helping reverse the slide in American science the last 8 or so years.

Particular Highlights (His comments in plain text, my commentary in Italics):

1. Innovation…My administration will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics, and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade. We will increase research grants for early-career researchers to keep young scientists entering these fields. We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies. And we will invest in the breakthrough research we need to meet our energy challenges and to transform our defense programs.

Sweet! One of the major problems facing my cohort of graduate students, at least in my experience, is a dwindling job market, a tightening of academic budgets, and slowly watching the years before our first major PI on an R01 grant or the like tick slowly upward. It’s a pretty massive disincentive to keep going.

6. Pandemics and Biosecurity. Some estimates suggest that if H5N1 Avian Flu becomes a pandemic it could kill more than 300 million people. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from global pandemics or deliberate biological attacks?

It’s time for a comprehensive effort to tackle bio-terror. We know that the successful deployment of a biological weapon—whether it is sprayed into our cities or spread through our food supply—could kill tens of thousands of Americans and deal a crushing blow to our economy.

Overseas, I will launch a Shared Security Partnership that invests $5 billion over 3 years to forge an international intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure to take down terrorist networks. I will also strengthen U.S. intelligence collection overseas to identify and interdict would-be bioterrorists before they strike and expand the U.S. government’s bioforensics program for tracking the source of any biological weapon. I will work with the international community to make any use of disease as a weapon declared a crime against humanity.

And to ensure our country is prepared should such an event occur, we must provide our public health system across the country with the surge capacity to confront a crisis and improve our ability to cope with infectious diseases. I will invest in new vaccines and technology to detect attacks and to trace them to their origin, so that we can react in a timely fashion. I have pledged to invest $10 billion per year over the next 5 years in electronic health information systems to not only improve routine health care, but also ensure that these systems will give health officials the crucial information they need to deploy resources and save lives in an emergency. I will help hospitals form collaborative networks to deal with sudden surges in patients and will ensure that the U.S. has adequate supplies of medicines, vaccines, and diagnostic tests and can get these vital products into the hands of those who need them.

We also have to expand local and state programs to ensure that they have the resources to respond to these disasters. I will work to strengthen the federal government’s partnership with local and state governments on these issues by improving the mechanisms for clear communication, eliminating redundant programs, and building on the key strengths possessed by each level of government. I introduced legislation which would have provided funding for programs in order to enhance emergency care systems throughout the country.

I will build on America’s unparalleled talent and advantage in STEM fields and the powerful insights into biological systems that are emerging to create new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tests and to manufacture these vital products much more quickly and efficiently than is now possible. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has failed to take full advantage of the Bioshield initiative. Because of the unpredictability of the mode of biological attack, I will stress the need for broad-gauged vaccines and drugs and for more agile and responsive drug development and production systems. This effort will strengthen the U.S. biotech and pharmaceutical industry and create high-wage jobs.

Alright, I’ll come out and say it. I did a fair amount of work on influenza at one point, and the whole ‘panflu’ thing makes me yawn at this point. Yes, its a looming threat, as are dozens of other emerging and potentially emerging infectious diseases. Not to mention, you know, AIDS, Malaria, and newly resurgent Measles (more on that later this week). The good news is, many of the programs Obama seems to be proposing are more generalizable, and improve our public health infrastructure and response, rather than warehousing rapidly expiring vaccines to today’s sexy ‘Threat of the Week’.

7. Genetics research. The field of genetics has the potential to improve human health and nutrition, but many people are concerned about the effects of genetic modification both in humans and in agriculture. What is the right policy balance between the benefits of genetic advances and their potential risks?

The progress that has occurred in genetics over the past half century has been remarkable—from the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure in 1953 to the recent deciphering of all three billion letters of the human genome. New knowledge about genes is already transforming medicine and agriculture and has the potential to change other fields, including energy and environmental sciences and information technology.

I also recognize that the power of modern genetics has raised important ethical, legal, and social issues that require careful study. For example, new developments in human genetics allow individuals to be informed about their risks of various diseases; such information can be useful for diagnosing and treating disease, but it can also be misused by employers or insurers to discriminate. For this reason, I have been a long-time supporter of the recently passed Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act. In addition, concerned about the premature introduction of genetic testing into the public domain without appropriate oversight, I introduced the Genomics and Personalized Medicine Act of 2007 aimed at ensuring the safety and accuracy of such testing.

Advances in the genetic engineering of plants have provided enormous benefits to American farmers. I believe that we can continue to modify plants safely with new genetic methods, abetted by stringent tests for environmental and health effects and by stronger regulatory oversight guided by the best available scientific advice.

Disease treatment and identification is likewise being transformed by modern genetics. Recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology has produced a number of products such as human growth hormone or insulin or other complicated proteins that are known to be involved in bone metabolism, immune response, and tissue repair. The promise of rDNA is its ability to sidestep potentially harmful intermediaries that could have a pathogenic effect. Some forms of gene therapy-replacing faulty genes with functional copies-in comparison have encountered safety issues that arise from how the functional gene is delivered. As a result, the NIH established the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, which now provides advice and guidance on human gene therapy as well as other ethical concerns or potential abuse of rDNA technology. Until we are equipped to ascertain the safety of such methods, I will continue to support the activities and recommendations of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.

8. Stem cells. Stem cell research advocates say it may successfully lead to treatments for many chronic diseases and injuries, saving lives, but opponents argue that using embryos as a source for stem cells destroys human life. What is your position on government regulation and funding of stem cell research?

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 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 August 9, 2001 through executive order, and I will ensure that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight.

I recognize that some people object to government support of research that requires cells to be harvested from human embryos. However, hundreds of thousands of embryos stored in the U.S. in in-vitro fertilization clinics will not be used for reproductive purposes, and will eventually be destroyed. I believe that it is ethical to use these extra embryos for research that could save lives when they are freely donated for that express purpose.

I am also aware that there have been suggestions that human stem cells of various types, derived from sources other than embryos, make the use of embryonic stem cells unnecessary. I don’t agree. While adult stem cells, such as those harvested from blood or bone marrow, are already used for treatment of some diseases, they do not have the versatility of embryonic stem cells and cannot replace them. Recent discoveries indicate that adult skin cells can be reprogrammed to behave like stem cells; these are exciting findings that might in the future lead to an alternate source of highly versatile stem cells. However, embryonic stem cells remain the “gold standard,” and studies of all types of stem cells should continue in parallel for the foreseeable future.

Rather than restrict the funding of such research, I favor responsible oversight of it, in accord with recent reports from the National Research Council. Recommendations from the NRC reports are already being followed by institutions that conduct human embryonic stem cell research with funds from a variety of sources. An expanded, federally-supported stem cell research program will encourage talented U.S. scientists to engage in this important new field, will allow more effective oversight, and will signal to other countries our commitment to compete in this exciting area of medical research.

A solid block of text, I know, and I’m sorry. But it needs to be digested as a chunk. This excites me a great deal. The Bush Admins policy on stem cell research, and generally on genetics research, has done a great deal of harm to America’s lead in some of the major emerging fields of the next generation of scientific discoveries. Innovation is America’s edge. Its how we solve our problems, its how we stay on top, and quite honestly, I’m rather fond of our place as one of the leading producers of science in the world. A hamstrung half-ban just doesn’t cut it as a sustainable science policy.

12. Scientific Integrity. Many government scientists report political interference in their job. Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making?

Scientific and technological information is of growing importance to a range of issues. I believe such information must be expert and uncolored by ideology.

I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best- available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees. More broadly, I am committed to creating a transparent and connected democracy, using cutting-edge technologies to provide a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America’s citizens. Policies must be determined using a process that builds on the long tradition of open debate that has characterized progress in science, including review by individuals who might bring new information or contrasting views. I have already established an impressive team of science advisors, including several Nobel Laureates, who are helping me to shape a robust science agenda for my administration.

In addition I will:

• Appoint individuals with strong science and technology backgrounds and unquestioned reputations for integrity and objectivity to the growing number of senior management positions where decisions must incorporate science and technology advice. These positions will be filled promptly with ethical, highly qualified individuals on a non-partisan basis;
• Establish the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will lead an interagency effort on best-in-class technologies, sharing of best practices, and safeguarding of our networks;
• Strengthen the role of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) by appointing experts who are charged to provide independent advice on critical issues of science and technology. The PCAST will once again be advisory to the president; and
• Restore the science integrity of government and restore transparency of decision- making by issuing an Executive Order establishing clear guidelines for the review and release of government publications, guaranteeing that results are released in a timely manner and not distorted by the ideological biases of political appointees. I will strengthen protection for “whistle blowers” who report abuses of these processes.

It probably says something about me that I think this is the biggest part of the whole thing. Above and beyond rational policies for stem cell research, or boosted grant funding for young researchers. The credibility of federal “science” agencies, not only the NSF, NASA and the NIH but also the FDA, CDC etc. rely on the belief that the scientists working for the government are “the good guys”, here to help the American people with science and carefully done research, doing the best for the people and not for a political agenda. It’s why agencies are capable of saying things like ‘Because we’re the *CDC*’ and have people take them seriously. And shoddy science and manipulation on the part of political appointees in major positions of leadership have gutted this credibility during the previous administration. If you want a full accounting, check out ‘Effect Measure’ on my Blogroll. The topic comes up with alarming frequency.


At this point, I’m tired, and literature searches remain to be done. He goes on to talk about breathing some new life into the CDC and FDA, our current underfunding of science, universal healthcare and some other things.

Generally, very excited. But to be honest, the burden of a thoughtful and articulate policy statements should not be on Obama. With the damage the Republican administration has done to science during their stay in the White House, I think it would behoove McCain to at least start a meaningful dialog. Because really, he has allot more to prove.


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