Learn about diversity at ASEE
ASEE would like to acknowledge the generous support of our premier corporate partners.




In science, technology and education, both Barack Obama and John McCain would bring change. But how? That’s where they diverge.

When it comes to science and technology, the first thing to know about Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, is that they have a lot in common, and that they both fundamentally disagree with the approach taken by the administration of President George W. Bush.

That means White House policies in those areas are likely to change considerably no matter who wins in November -- but it doesn’t mean the candidates are marching in lockstep. While they agree on key priorities, their approaches differ — sometimes sharply — and are worth exploring.

Both McCain and Obama claim to attach great importance to developing a nationwide powerhouse of scientific expertise. They would improve education in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — at the critical K-12 level; strengthen the domestic scientific and technological workforce; encourage more foreigners to seek advanced degrees and careers here, and make permanent the federal tax credit for research and development. And in a rare agreement with a Bush initiative, they have endorsed human space exploration.

Obama would spend $18 billion on K-12 initiatives, and might pay for them by cutting back on congressional earmarks, some of which now go to university research.

Thanks to political necessity if nothing else, both candidates also have embraced energy and the environment as marquee science issues, and they agree on the main themes: Cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil, reduce power plant emissions, and join other nations in seeking solutions to global warming. Not only does their attention to these issues differ from the laissez-faire approach of the Bush years, it could signal profound changes in the way the country views its energy future. The public outcry fueled by $4-per-gallon gasoline has given energy and environmental policy an urgency unmatched since the 1970s.

That covers a lot of scientific territory, but there is still plenty for voters to argue about.

Education and the Workforce

Both McCain and Obama have stressed the need to improve K-12 education and to de-emphasize the problematic 2001 No Child Left Behind law aimed at strengthening school accountability. McCain aims for improvement through teacher recruitment and training. Using Title II of the law, which provides about $3 billion a year for recruiting and preparing high quality teachers and principals, he would spend 60 per cent of those funds on incentive bonuses for teachers -- particularly STEM teachers — who take jobs in difficult, usually poor and urban, districts, and 35 per cent to principals and teachers for specific school needs. The remaining five percent would be used to recruit top college graduates as teachers and to provide “alternate certification” for retired professionals who wish to teach but do not have the proper credentials.

Obama focuses more directly on STEM education, promising on his Web site to “make math and science education” a national priority. He says his plan would offer prospective teachers four years of undergraduate instruction, two years of graduate instruction or mid-career retooling in return for four years of teaching science or math, or teaching in high-need districts; it would also provide mentoring for STEM teachers or teachers working in difficult districts.

Obama says his early education and K-12 initiatives would cost $18 billion per year, and originally suggested paying for them by delaying the Bush administration’s plans for a human space flight program. He later backed away from that position and told the Tampa Tribune he will find different offsets. In part, he would cut spending on earmarks, Congress’s yearly splash of unauthorized spending for special projects in legislators’ home districts or states, some of which goes to colleges and universities.

The candidates agree on the need to increase funding for scientific and university-based research; however, both are vague on details. Obama wants to double federal funding for basic research, but beyond new energy and biomedical initiatives has provided few specifics.

McCain has been even less forthcoming. Based on his energy views, it appears likely that he would use federal funds to encourage more private sector involvement in research, but by supporting a one-year freeze on discretionary federal spending he may have put himself in a box. Striking out in new research directions will be difficult without new money to spend.

University research could take another hit if Obama is serious, as he first indicated in the Florida interview, about cutting back on earmarks and redirecting some of that largesse toward other priorities. In the past, he has been no enemy of earmarks, having obtained $97.4 million for Illinois in 2008, according to the taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. McCain’s loathing for earmarks, by contrast, forms an integral part of his maverick image.

To offset shortages in the domestic workforce, both Obama and McCain have supported issuance of more H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers, but this is a tricky issue closely tied to the politically explosive question of whether lower-paid foreigners are stealing jobs — including skilled jobs -- from American workers. Obama has to worry about his union support while McCain’s moderate stance is at odds with the GOP mainstream.

Energy and the Environment

At the beginning of the presidential primary season, there was a significant partisan divide between the Democrats’ activism and the Bush administration’s reluctance to get involved in the debate over global climate change. But that political dynamic changed when McCain, with a relatively strong environmental record, took control of the GOP race.

Where They Stand
Nuclear Power Lukewarm support.
Strong support. Wants 45 new reactors by 2030.
Renewable Energy 10% of electricity use by 2012, 25% by 2025 and invest $150 billion over 10 years in clean energy. Supports expansion of renewables, no specific numbers.
Greenhouse Gas Reduction Reduce by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. Supports cap-and-trade plan with all permits auctioned. Reduce by 60% from 1990 levels by 2050. Supports cap-and-trade with some permits offered for free.
Domestic Oil Drilling Opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Now supports limited offshore drilling. Opposes drilling in the ANWR. Supported the offshore ban in 2000, now wants to lift it.
Clean Coal (or Coal-to-Liquid) Increase resources devoted to developing low carbon coal technology and retrofitting old facilities. Supports coal-to-liquid fuels if they emit 20% less carbon than conventional gas. Invest $2 billion annually in development of clean coal technology.
R & D
Double federal funding for basic research. Make R&D tax credits permanent. Deploy next-generation broadband to every community. Make tax credits permanent, equal to 10% of wages spent on R&D. Allow first-year “expensing” of new technology for businesses.
Higher Education Double federal funding for basic research. Eliminate legislative earmarks for research projects that don’t go through a competitive process.
K-12 Spend $18 billion more annually on education. Make math and science education a national priority. Devote federal Title II funds to incentive bonuses for good teachers and special school needs. Employ alternative teacher certification stressing quality.

Narrowing the partisan gap further, candidates from both parties noted that U.S. dependence on foreign oil was causing what McCain (and many others) termed “the largest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind.” This made energy policy a national security concern, because some oil exporting nations, as Obama’s campaign has said, “are hostile to our interests.” By buying foreign oil, the United States in some cases was indirectly funding the same enemies it was fighting in the war on terror.

But the gasoline price spike this spring was what really brought the issue of energy and the environment to center stage: “It was always there, but it was kind of remarkable how little it came up,” says Harvard lecturer David Goldston, former Republican staff director for the House Committee on Science. “Now it’s all anybody wants to talk about.”

Even though concerns about oil imports and gasoline prices don’t affect the larger environmental issue of power-plant emissions, both Obama and McCain have seized the moment to link the two. “It’s clear that people care about the energy future in a way that hasn’t been true in decades,” says Daniel Esty, an environmental law professor at Yale University and adviser to the Obama campaign. “The convergence of the price spike, frustration with Iraq, and the unattractiveness of some oil suppliers make an overwhelming argument for moving in a new direction.”

Both candidates advocate cap-and-trade strategies to reduce greenhouse gases, but the difference is in the details. Cap-and-trade sets a national ceiling on emissions and grants permits to power companies and other emitters, allowing them to sell their permits to others as they develop ways to curb their own emissions.

Under either Obama or McCain, cap-and-trade would be in place by 2012, but Obama would auction permits, estimated to be worth $100 billion, to begin the program, establishing a market for permits at the outset and giving the federal government a substantial infusion of revenue. His goal would be emission reductions of 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. On the other hand, McCain’s plan would grant the initial permits for free and let the marketplace set the subsequent price, with a goal of a 60 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2050.

Both candidates say they intend to re-enter the international climate-change debate after eight years of Bush administration standoffishness, and both say they will promote energy and environmental research. Obama has pledged to invest $150 billion over 10 years — much of it from the cap-and-trade auction proceeds — in projects ranging from plug-in hybrids to low-emission coal power plants and large-scale commercialization of wind and solar energy.

McCain offers a similar menu but emphasizes private-sector innovation rather than government mandate or investment. His proposals include offering a $5,000 tax credit to any consumer who buys a zero-carbon emissions automobile, and a $300 million prize for the development of a battery package commercially suitable for plug-in hybrids or fully electric cars at 30 percent of current cost.

The candidates differ most significantly on the supply side, where energy needs and environmental concerns collide head-on. McCain has called for increasing domestic oil and gas production by drilling on the outer continental shelf. He also has embraced nuclear power, pledging to develop a plan to build 45 new reactors by 2030. The Obama campaign acknowledges that “it is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals,” without nuclear power, but his endorsement is lukewarm and offers no specifics. And though he originally opposed drilling plans favored by the Republicans, by August Obama was signaling a willingness to compromise if offshore drilling was part of a “comprehensive energy policy” that could avoid significant environmental damage.

McCain stresses teacher recruitment and training. He would also spend $1 billion to expand online education.

Many experts, most notably oil man T. Boone Pickens, say that more domestic drilling is unlikely in the long run to alleviate oil shortages. But Goldston, who personally opposes offshore drilling, has noted that drilling can be attractive, especially for an anxious Congress obliged to do something about gas prices during an election year. In the final analysis though, the long-term prospects for any energy plan will probably depend less on politics than on sound policy, and on the next president’s determination to stick with it — in good times as well as bad.


Both candidates agree on the need to extend broadband access to underserved areas and to use technology to streamline government bureaucracies. McCain, a confessed computer illiterate, has proposed spending $1 billion to expand online education opportunities and virtual classrooms.

Obama has a similar list of education initiatives, but he has also given technology policy a political cast, proposing to appoint a “chief technology officer” to modernize federal information systems, improve public access to the inner workings of government agencies, and take feedback from citizens. He doesn’t explain how the technology officer would accomplish this agenda, or whether the initiative has any substance beyond the political intent of contrasting the Democratic candidate, as an advocate of openness in government, with the secretive Bush administration.


As Election Day nears, one thing seems clear: Whether the issue is improving K-12 STEM education, developing new sources of energy, or increasing funds for research and development, both Obama and McCain are positioned to make a major impact on the nation’s future scientific and technological course. But will the winner, having won, follow through?

Guy Gugliotta is a freelance writer based in the New York area.



© Copyright 2008
American Society for Engineering Education
1818 N Street, N.W., Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036-2479
Telephone: (202) 331-3500