PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - OCTOBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 2
tech view

Science on the Ballot
By Mary Kathleen Flynn

THE NEXT LEADER WILL HAVE A BIG IMPACT ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF NEW TECHNOLOGIES. WILL THE REAL SCIENCE PRESIDENT STAND UP?

"As President, I will see to it that America is once again at the forefront of scientific discovery," pledged Sen. John Kerry on the first day of summer, the same day that 48 Nobel Prize winning scientists endorsed the Democratic candidate for president. Are the Noble Prize winners right? If elected, would Senator Kerry make a better "science president" than President George Bush, who enjoys the endorsement of technology business leaders, including Michael Dell and Craig McCaw?

To explore the question, we turned to two congressmen with strong science credentials: U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, a Republican from Michigan, and Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey. Both hold Ph.D.'s in physics—Ehlers from the University of California at Berkeley and Holt from New York University—and both are former professors. Both serve on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Ehlers is on the House Committee on Science. Predictably, each says his party's choice for president will be the better friend to science.

Federal support for research is where the next president can make the biggest impact, say both congressmen. "No one else is doing much basic research other than federal governments," states Ehlers. "With globalization and the breakup of monopolies such as AT&T, there's very little private, corporate money available for basic research." He emphasizes that it often takes 50 or more years before the results of basic research are commercialized. Ehlers argues that President Bush will do more to support basic research, "simply because he's now been at this four years and has put a system in place with very good people there." He refers to the president's appointment of John Marburger, a Democrat, to be the White House science adviser as indicative of the president's "desire to pick best the person."

Holt points to Kerry's promotion of new technologies, including alternative energy sources and stem cell research, as indicative of the senator's approach to science. Holt also says that infrastructure improvements, such as tax incentives to spur high-speed Internet access favored by Senator Kerry, "will multiply the effectiveness of research and development."

Senator Kerry has pledged to increase investments in many federal agencies near and dear to engineers, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), but he has not provided specific dollar amounts. Last year, Congress authorized doubling NSF's budget within five years. The president's proposed budget for fiscal 2005 calls for only a 3 percent increase in NSF, which Holt characterizes as "minuscule." Ehlers points out that the increase is "reasonable compared with the rest of the president's budget," which calls for few increases in areas other than Defense and Homeland Security. Ehlers says that the NSF funding receives "far worse treatment in Congress" than it does from the president.

Support for science education is an important area where the federal government can make a difference. "In education, the record of the past few years is not all that good," says Holt. "There have been no programs suggested by the current administration to increase student aid for science students, or fellowships for science and engineering, states Holt.

The next president will play an important role in determining the future of the final frontier, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), including whether the emphasis should be on human- or robot-operated flights. But, like many another campaign promise, it's easy for the president to promote a mission to Mars and for the senator to talk about increasing the budget for space exploration. What each will do if elected is a voter's bet.


Mary Kathleen Flynn has covered technology for more than 15 years for a variety of media outlets, including Newsweek, the New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, CNN, and MSNBC.

 

 

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