In past presidential campaigns, science advocates generally have been the wallflowers of political debate. This year, they have tried to get on the dance floor. More than 175 science organizations and universities called for a debate on science issues and got a 14-question survey answered by both candidates.
A number of prominent scientists have flocked toward Obama. In September, his campaign touted the support of 61 winners of Nobel science or medicine prizes, held a media conference call on science policy, and sent a speaker to one of the nation's biggest science conferences in February. The McCain campaign did not do those things nor has it promoted Nobel-winning supporters.
McCain has, in a few cases, taken positions that are at odds with mainstream scientists. In a February town hall meeting in Texas, he declared "there's strong evidence" that a mercury-based preservative in vaccines is linked to the increase in U.S. autism cases, according to ABC News.
The Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and medical organizations say there is no such evidence. Since 2002, the preservative has been removed from shots recommended for young children, except for some flu shots. Fielding a similar question in April, Obama said: "The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it."
McCain in 2005 also told a Tucson newspaper that he favors teaching the concept of intelligent design alongside evolution in schools. Intelligent design is the view that life is too complex to have developed through evolution alone, implying that a higher power must have had a hand in creation. In later interviews, McCain has sometimes distanced himself from that comment; last July he told the New York Times these issues are up to local school boards. While evangelical conservatives and President Bush laud the teaching of intelligent design, scientists, such as Leshner, say it would "undermine science education."
The McCain campaign did not respond to several requests by The Associated Press for comment on science issues. The campaign also did not respond to 10 specific questions, including those about intelligent design and childhood vaccines and autism.
Obama's science advisers, such as former National Institutes of Health director Harold Varmus, mostly paint differences between their candidate and President Bush, not McCain. Varmus criticized what he called "the Bush administration's overall war on science."
Jack Marburger, Bush's science adviser says the campaigns have not been fair about the president's leadership on climate change. As for the debate over embryonic stem cells, he called it "an ethical issue, not a science policy."
"We've got a lot of money on the table (for science spending). The question is how to spend it," Marburger said. "That is going to be the question for the next administration. That is going to be tough."