America asked Barack Obama about science, and Obama answered.
"This is the first time we know of that a candidate for president has laid out his science policy before the election at this level of detail," said Shawn Otto, CEO of ScienceDebate2008.
A 38,000-member coalition of scientists, engineers and concerned citizens, ScienceDebate2008 pushed presidential candidates to attend to science -- an area that is vital to America's economy and touches on nearly every important political issue, but is generally neglected during elections.
Though unable to convince Obama and John McCain to engage in a full-blown science debate, ScienceDebate2008 winnowed 3,400 member-submitted questions down to 14 key challenges facing candidates and the country. Some, such as clean energy and stem cell research, are familiar from past elections. Others, such as water security and the systematic politicization of science, are new.
Obama's answers were released on Saturday and balance lofty rhetoric with policy-wonk detail -- not only on energy issues, which are a central part of his platform, but relatively esoteric issues as science education, bioterror and genetic privacy.
"I thought they were very substantive for this point in the campaign, and surprisingly detailed," said Otto.
Obama also appears to appreciate the process of science: He promises across-the-board doublings of basic research budgets, and pledges to reverse the ideologically motivated science-skewing that has thrived under the Bush administration.
On the Friday preceding Obama's answers, John McCain announced the vice presidential nomination of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- a global warming skeptic with a poor environmental record and sympathy for public creationism education. According to Otto, McCain has not yet answered.
Below are takeaway quotes from several essential questions. The full version is here.
ScienceDebate2008: What policies will you support to ensure that America remains the world leader in innovation?
Barack Obama: My administration will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade.
SD2008: What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change -- a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards or research?
Obama: The U.S. must get off the sidelines and take long-overdue action here at home to reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions. We must also take a leadership role in designing technologies that allow us to enjoy a growing, prosperous economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
SD2008: What policies would you support to meet demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?
Obama: First, I have proposed programs that, taken together, will increase federal investment in the clean energy research, development and deployment to $150 billion over ten years.... Second, it is essential that we create a strong, predictable market for energy innovations with concrete goals that speed introduction of innovative products and provide a strong incentive for private R&D investment in energy technologies.
SD2008: What is your view of how science and technology can best be used to ensure national security and where should we put our focus?
Obama: My administration will put basic defense research on a path to double and will assure strong funding for investments in DoD's applied research programs. We will enhance the connections between defense researchers and their war-fighting counterparts. And, we will strengthen defense research management so that our most innovative minds are working on our most pressing defense problems.
SD2008: What is your position on government regulation and funding of stem cell research?
Obama: I believe that the restrictions that President Bush has placed on funding of human embryonic stem cell research have handcuffed our scientists and hindered our ability to compete with other nations. As president, I will lift the current administration's ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines created after August 9, 2001 through executive order, and I will ensure that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight.
SD2008: How do you see science, research and technology contributing to improved health and quality of life?
Obama: These are difficult problems, and science and technology can solve only some of them. The effectiveness of medical care can be improved, and its costs can be reduced, by greater emphasis on best practices, electronic medical records, hospital safety, preventive strategies and improved public health surveillance.
SD2008: Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making?
Obama: I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees. More broadly, I am committed to creating a transparent and connected democracy, using cutting-edge technologies to provide a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America's citizens.
Though it's impossible to know whether Obama will keep his word, the thoroughness of his answers -- the quotes above are just the tip -- is impressive.
"A lot of the scientists I've spoken to are pleased with the level of substance and detail," said Otto.