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Dem Candidate Proxies Talk Science at AAAS

It was just a plain flier, 8-1/2 by 11, taped to a few walls and easels here and there in the Hynes Convention Center during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston. Be there: 3:15 p.m. Saturday. Hear what the Clinton and Obama campaigns are going to do about science and technology. The room was packed. Apparently the whole thing was whipped together in a day or two.

None of the Republican campaigns could send a representative, apparently. They said they were too busy; more likely they knew how few sympathetic minds there would be in an audience of academics.

The Obama side was presented by thirty-something Alec Ross, who said he left three pre-schoolers at home to participate. He’s a pale, unassuming guy, a little long-haired. You’d spot him for a liberal do-gooder from the get-go. Ross is a co-founder and Executive Vice President of a venture philanthropy outfit called One Economy Corp., which brings computers and broadband to low-income people. He said he met Obama as a state senator in Illinois a couple of years ago, well away from the TV cameras, and came away impressed by his “keen understanding of the role of technology in kids’ futures.” One Economy was bringing the Internets to some kids on the south side of Chicago at the time.

Ross was sincere, if a bit vague. I wanted to like the guy, I really did, but Hillary’s man had PowerPoint. Who can compete with that?!

Her guy was Thomas Kalil, 40-something, a bit fleshy, red in the face, aggressively short salt-n-pepper hair. I couldn’t see, but I’ll bet the cuff of his pants was just an inch too high. Washington all the way. He’s currently the Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Science and Technology at the University of California at Berkeley, which is just the sort of gig one gets after eight years in technology policy in the Bill Clinton White House and a start in the business as a semiconductor industry lobbyist.

The good news? We win either way. Both candidates are promising to “double” American investment in R&D through NIH, NSF, DOE, DOD, NIST: Clinton in 10 years; Obama in 5. “He’s going to be elected president, not emperor,” Ross said.

(Get specific, if you want; I don’t have the patience: Clinton’s slides were derived from this. Obama’s stuff is spread across several areas – get the whole book here. Most of it came from the technology chapter. Obama’s principal thing sounded like communications infrastructure … but maybe because that’s Ross’ thing?

Both would push for fully electronic medical records — with appropriate safety measures in place, of course. (Me? If it’s privacy you’re worried about, I’ll take an encrypted national database over $6/hour Blue Cross file clerks shuffling carbon paper any day.)

Clinton’s best turn of phrase: “America is still an innovation superpower.” She’d set up an Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) for Energy. She’d spend on research to advance global health and homeland security. Oh, and she’s going to ask Hollywood to do for bench science what it did for blood spatters and semen swabs via “CSI.” At least that idea won’t cost billions we don’t have.

Obama would name a Chief Technology Officer for the country who would standardize and streamline federal IT infrastructure, and make everything more interoperable and transparent in the bargain. He’d put $150B over ten years into alternative energy, transportation, a digital electricity grid(?). He’d double federal funding for clean energy, using existing federal labs and land-grant schools (Go Spartans!). Without giving away too much of the plot, Ross said it’s a “bold and fully developed agenda,” nine pages in all.

First question from the floor (of more than a hundred submitted): Get specific!

Clinton: We are more specific.

Obama: Check out our web site, dude. For example, Obama would go after the $12B “universal service fund” which the telcos have apparently been using to build cell fone towers and lay copper wire — all for better voice service. Instead, Obama would redirect it to broadband. “We really get in the weeds on policy,” Ross said, which may have been his team’s best turn of phrase.

Clinton’s guy points out it’s easy to offer a hundred billion here and there, but we’ve got some real money issues in this country. Her solution would be to impose carbon caps and trading to raise revenue. Obama’s solution to the cash problem is to stop the war in Iraq – a rare applause line.

Contrast with McCain? He sucks, no argument.

Nuclear power? Clinton says we’ve got unanswered questions in waste, safety, proliferation and cost. Work those out and we’ll talk. Obama says, check out the site, but we’re about the same.

NASA? Man on Mars, probably not. Clinton wants to restore Earth science, remote sensing stuff, which Bush let slide because it was revealing too much ugly truthiness.

What’s the new Sputnik?
Twenty carbon-neutral terawatts by 2030, says Kalil. And lower the average age of first RO-1 funding, (currently edging toward 42).

Ross says invest and encourage women, minorities and immigrants. Obama is a “citizen of the world” and sees great strategic advantage in retaining the immigrants our universities and graduate programs are already attracting.

There was a little more, but really, they don’t sound all that different. It’s hard to judge through proxies like this, because we may have been hearing a reflection of the spokespeople, not the candidates. Voiced by Tom Kalil, Clinton’s proposals sounded specific, task-oriented, rooted in battle-hardened Washington reality. From Ross, Obama’s plans were loftier, more aspirational.

Tell you what: Help us get them to the podium for a real Science Debate on April 18.

It’s the science policy, stupid

Well, well.

The presidential campaigns might finally get around to talking about science. And, maybe, just maybe, they won’t limit the discussion to stem cells.

The NYTimes’ Andrew Revkin reported yesterday   that a group called Sciencedebate 2008 , comprised of some very smart people, including science bloggers Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney, has scheduled a science debate and invited the presidential candidates.

Gee, do you think the wanna-be leaders of the free world might recognize that science is important?

Hmmmm. Let’s see. They all talk about healthcare reform. That involves, uh, health care, which usually includes medicine, and sometimes biomedical science.

How about the environment? Despite the fact that environment stories often turn into stories about Hollywood personalities, I’m pretty sure science is part of understanding why the Arctic ice cap is melting, which just might carry over to this energy, global warming stuff.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the perpetual war on terrorism, are top priorities. But what about the technological gadgetry that enables us to wage war and defend our military? An engineer or two might have been involved in creating drone aircraft or satellite imaging. Oh, and there’s the whole battlefield medicine and psychiatry angle, but that’s stretching it a bit.

There’s been a big fuss recently about how far behind the rest of the world the U.S. (No. 17) lags in Internet broadband speed. Korea is killing us. Canada — Canada! — is more advanced. But the Internet isn’t an important part of commerce or national security or anything like that.

And then there’s the workforce. All those people depending on medical care, manufacturing, energy … that’s inconsequential. Never mind that some of those sectors might actually improve our quality of life, much less keep us alive.

The candidates have science policies. Obama, Hillary and McCain list science topics on their “issues” pages. They all talk about healthcare reform, which is about the same for all of them. Obama’s is the only one that addresses technology. Hillary lists an “innovation agenda,” whatever that is. McCain adds the environment. Read them and draw your own conclusions.

Also check out the NSF’s wish list.

And let’s hope that science and technology come out of the shadows and take a prominent role in national initiatives.

Seeing green

What’s foul and gross and green all over? China’s Taihu Lake during a massive cyanobacteria bloom. Hans Paerl, seen here scooping up some of the algae, is consulting with the Chinese to control the blooms.

Developing countries aren’t the only places vulnerable; these blooms have killed livestock who sought to slake their thirst from U.S. lakes, Paerl says. Global warming will make the problem worse because the blue-green organisms thrive during droughts and in extreme conditions.

In the end (of the world), Paerl says, there will be cockroaches and blue green algae. And in the very end, there will be the algae. Read the Aug. 31, 07 issue of Science or go to the Paerl Lab.

To drink or not to drink

This nifty study in the Dec. 26, 2007 issue of Journal of Neurosci shows biological and genetic links clinks to addictive behavior, namely alcoholism.

Instead of bating subjects with booze, the researcher tested how well they make complex decisions. Novel. She showed that it’s more difficult for people with alcohol addiction to think through … to come to a … to decide … that their working memory doesn’t work as well and they … like when you’re doing long division in your head and you can’t remember what number you carried and then when you do you can’t remember what you were supposed to add it to, so you just blurt out a number. It’s because their frontal cortex is a little different.

Temple Grandin also talks about frontal cortex and poor working memory in her book, “Animals in Translation,” when discussing autism. Just so you know.

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