Technological progress has been responsible for about half of U.S. economic growth since the end of the Second World War. Consequently, what the federal government does about science and technology policy significantly affects the prospects for future American prosperity. The 2012 Democratic Party Platform lays out progressive views on how government should aid and direct science and technology policy. Since the Obama administration has been in power for four years, it is also useful to take a look back at how well or ill the sci-tech promises in the 2008 Platform have fared.
Research and Development
In its 2008 platform, the Democratic Party declared, “Research should be based on science, not ideology.” The 2008 Platform also promised to “increase funding to the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the National Cancer Institutes,” as well as to “double federal funding for basic research.”
Did the Obama administration keep these promises? The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has analyzed trends in federal R&D spending. In constant 2012 dollars, the AAAS finds that National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding has fallen from $31.2 billion in 2009 to $30 billion in 2012. On the other hand, National Science Foundation (NSF) spending rose from $5 billion to $5.6 billion. Overall total federal R&D has dropped from $152.6 billion in 2009 to $140.5 billion in 2012. The AAAS calculates that federal basic research funding rose from $29.5 billion in 2009 to $30.2 in 2012. Note that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act gave a one-time $20 billion boost to federal R&D in 2009. For what it’s worth, in constant dollars total federal R&D spending peaked under the George W. Bush administration in 2007 at $154.4 billion.
The 2012 Democratic Platform commits once again to “doubling funding for key basic research agencies.” On a bipartisan note, the Democrats, like the Republicans, “support expanding and making permanent the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit.” After all, industry accounts for more than 70 percent of all U.S. R&D expenditures.
In both the 2008 and 2012 Platforms, the Democrats support “age-appropriate sex education.” In a dig at the Republican Platform’s support for “abstinence education,” the 2012 Democratic platform calls for “evidence-based” sex education. In both the 2008 and 2012 Platforms, the Democrats assert, “[s]uch health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions.” As background, the abortion rate has fallen from 24 per 1,000 women ages 15-44 in the 1980s and has remained stable for the past decade at 16 per 1,000 women.
In its 2008 platform, the Democratic Party promised, “We will lift the current Administration's ban on using federal funding for embryonic stem cells – cells that would have otherwise have been discarded and lost forever – for research that could save lives.” Strictly speaking, the Bush administration hadn’t banned research on embryonic stem cells, but had limited federal funding to stem cell lines that had been derived before President Bush’s speech on the topic in August 2001. In any case, as the 2012 Platform notes, President Obama “issued an executive order repealing the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research” in March 2009. As he made clear in his remarks when he signed the stem cell executive order, Obama agrees with the Republican Platform that human cloning should be banned: “And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.”
The 2012 Democratic Platform flatly states, “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay. We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.” The phrase “regardless of ability to pay” suggests that the right to choose includes the right to make taxpayers pay for abortions. Since money is fungible, a number of provisions have been inserted into the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. ObamaCare) that try to keep federal funds from financing abortions. Pro-choicers and pro-lifers vehemently disagree about how those provisions will in fact play out.
Good news America! Both the Democrats and the Republicans are in favor of “energy independence” and an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. However, back in 2008, the Democrats asserted, “We know we can't drill our way to energy independence.” Instead the Platform declared, “We must invest in research and development, and deployment of renewable energy technologies—such as solar, wind, geothermal, as well as technologies to store energy through advanced batteries and clean up our coal plants.”
The 2008 Platform promised to “fast-track investment of billions of dollars over the next ten years to establish a green energy sector that will create up to five million jobs.” In addition, the 2008 Platform committed to “getting at least 25 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2025.” The only comment in the Platform regarding nuclear power occurs when it promises to “protect Nevada and its communities from the high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, which has not been proven to be safe by sound science.”
President Obama proudly pointed out in his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention last week that the use of renewable energy has doubled under his administration and that thousands of Americans have jobs building wind turbines and long-lasting batteries. In addition, the U.S. has cut its imports of oil by 1 million barrels per day while opening up “millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration in the last three years, and we'll open more.”