It is less specific policies and more the approach to science that will distinguish the next US president.
Primary season in the US presidential race is finally over. As the dust settles, it remains to be seen how much the protracted battle between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has hurt the Democratic party, but for now politicians of all stripes are regrouping and strategizing about how to win the election.
Those who believe that science and technology issues should be at the forefront of the campaign agenda have so far been disappointed. The notion of a 'science debate' — itself debatable (see Nature 451, 605; 2008) — has fizzled out. Pleas for the candidates to address research issues seem largely to have fallen on deaf ears.
Yet there can be little doubt that the next US administration will be more science-friendly than the present one. Both of the expected nominees, Obama and Republican Senator John McCain, have put forth platforms that represent major breaks from the policies of President George W. Bush. No matter who is elected, the United States will almost certainly repeal its ban on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells using fresh cell lines. The new president will endorse mandatory reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and work with Congress to enact meaningful climate legislation. And new leadership appointments at key agencies can only mean that morale at places such as the Environmental Protection Agency will improve.
So far, McCain and Obama have set out relatively different platforms on science and technology issues. For his part, Obama has yet to give a substantive speech on science issues, as Clinton did on the 50th anniversary of Sputnik. But he has adopted many of the traditional Democratic platforms, such as increasing federal funding for biomedical research and improving the jobs pipeline for young scientists. He has put a strong emphasis on the importance of technology for improving the lives of everyday Americans and their access to government. And he has been remarkably successful at using the Internet to turn his supporters into active participants in the political process. An Obama administration might well mean that more technologically savvy people will be drawn into public life — and perhaps that more young people will choose science and engineering careers.
In contrast, McCain has revealed few details of his science and technology agenda. But in some areas he has been quite outspoken. Last week, for example, he called for a new treaty to reduce the US and Russian nuclear arsenals, suggesting he would lower the number of weapons even beyond the cuts planned by the Bush administration. And on 12 May he outlined a detailed plan for controlling greenhouse-gas emissions — the centrepiece of which is a cap-and-trade system of the type he has been advocating since at least 2003, when he co-sponsored the first meaningful bill on that subject.
In the end, the main factor is not how Obama or McCain feels about specific science-related issues. What American voters deserve to know is how each candidate's mind works. Does he listen to a handful of ideology-driven advisers in making key decisions? Or does he look facts in the face and base his conclusions on all the available evidence? If it's the latter, then that is the candidate who is in sync with science at a level far more meaningful than any immediate argument over research budgets or competitiveness.