Call it the political revenge of the nerds. For nearly eight years, many mainstream scientists have been frustrated with the Bush administration. They've claimed that science has been censored, ignored and politicized on issues from global warming to stem cells to evolution. Even the presidential science adviser was booted from the White House, forced to set up office down the street.
Both presidential candidates — Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama — offer policies farther from the president than they are from each other. They advocate mandatory caps on the main global warming gas and favor federal funding for embryonic stem cell research — positions opposite the Bush Administration.
Obama and McCain promise to seek, not censor, government science advice and to restore the White House science adviser's office.
The differences between them are more notable in the nuances of policy than in the broad brush of campaigns. Both have promised more money for scientific research, though the ongoing financial crisis may make that tough.
One science spending difference managed to creep into the second presidential debate, however. McCain ridiculed an unsuccessful Obama earmark attempt to get "$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Ill. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?" McCain asked.
It turns out that wasn't just an old-fashioned overhead slide viewer, but a replacement for the 38-year-old star-and-planet projector in the Sky Theater at the Adler Planetarium, the first planetarium in the Western Hemisphere and located in Obama's home state.
For his part, Obama put spending for energy research ahead of health care and entitlement reform when asked in the debate to set priorities. He's called for an investment of $15 billion a year over 10 years.
"While on the surface it may look like they say the same thing ... when it comes to energy issues, you do get a little difference," said Syracuse University science and public policy professor Henry Lambright.
The candidates touch on the same alternatives to foreign oil, but McCain pushes heavily on domestic oil drilling and nuclear power; Obama emphasizes renewable energy such as wind and solar.
Both men propose a dramatic reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide — the chief man-made greenhouse gas — but their long-term goals are slightly different. Obama wants an 80% reduction by 2050. McCain, who wants a 60% cap, was an early leader in proposing mandatory emissions caps, bucking his party and his president.
Both candidates favor President Bush's plan to send astronauts back to the moon. But both disagree with the plan to retire the space shuttle in 2010, relying on the Russians for five years to send Americans into orbit. After once advocating diverting NASA money for education, Obama has been as vocal for space spending as McCain. Space is a big industry in Florida, a key battleground state.
Science policy experts like Granger Morgan at Carnegie Mellon University says, "Far more critical is to understand how the two candidates use science and technology advice."
And he and others say either man would be an improvement over Bush.
"They both appear to have areas where they've had terrific track records, and we think that many of the issues will be handled in a way that tracks more closely to the science," said Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.