This month marks the 50th anniversary of NASA, which was launched a year after the Soviet Union lofted Sputnik into orbit, a feat that threatened to accelerate the communist rival's lead over the U.S. in spaceflight technology. It's probably fair to ask whether any U.S. president might once again be in a position to respond to such a huge scientific and technological challenge.
Former Vice President Al Gore's vision, for example, of creating 100 percent carbon-neutral electrical power in the next decade might be one such challenge—and something Gore specifically likened to a 'moon shot'—requiring commitments, coordination and funding at every level of the public and private sectors.
But candidates may have to revise their ambitions and spending plans in the wake of the $700-billion federal fiscal bailout, which promises to put a massive dent in taxpayers' pocketbooks. Jeffrey Sachs's analysis of the financial crisis paints a sobering picture for the incoming administration. Hence, it may be tough to pin down funding commitments for science and technology between now and election day.
To wit: Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has said that some of his goals may have to be delayed, but reiterated that there are some things that "just can't wait," such as his proposed $150-billion investment in clean or sustainable energy programs (toward his goal of freeing the U.S. from dependence on foreign oil) and the attendant creation of five million "green collar" jobs.
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain's proposal to offer a taxpayer-funded $300-million prize to the developer of a battery package that could cost-effectively power cars may have a game show element about it, but his supporters view it as a counterbalance to his "drill baby drill" approach to energy and the environment.
According to a report by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, the campaign platforms of both McCain and Obama "incorporate substantially more focus on innovation and technology policies than their predecessors' platforms in the 2004 election."
Yet just about the same time that Obama released an 11-page plan (PDF) for science and innovation, on the heels of his endorsement by dozens of Nobel Prize winners (PDF), his opponent's campaign started talking about a one-year freeze in discretionary spending.
And with McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, sparking an unprecedented level of interest in the beliefs and philosophies of a vice presidential candidate, some more populist questions of science—creationism in the classroom, for example—have taken on a more direct resonance with voters than usual.
Meanwhile, as we head into the crucial final weeks of the campaign, there has been no shortage of comparisons and evaluations of the two tickets' stances and contrasting proposed policies on everything from climate change (where the next president will have both an opportunity and responsibility to provide global leadership on the issue) to stem cell research.
The Obama campaign recently answered questions posed by Nature magazine (the McCain campaign declined, as it did also in response to a similar request from Physics Today. Scientific American's own questions to the candidates, together with the candidates responses to the Sciencedebate 2008 Web site, will give interested voters a chance to measure the two candidates' approaches.