|By Mary Kathleen Flynn
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
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
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