Biotechnology

Partisan Politics and the Science-Industrial Complex

Measuring the Democratic and Republican Party platforms on science and technology policy

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"Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress," declared Vannevar Bush in a letter introducing his report, Science: The Endless Frontier, to President Harry Truman in 1945. In that report, Bush, the director of the federal Office of Scientific Research and Development, argued that some areas of science "are likely to be cultivated inadequately if left without more support than will come from private sources." Ever since, the federal government has been deeply involved in scientific research and technology policy and has used the results of that research as the basis of public policy. It is instructive, then, to compare and contrast the science and technology policy proposals in the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties. Let's look at how each party claims it will deal with issues like human embryonic stem cells, reproductive health, scientific integrity, space exploration, the Internet, and research funding. (Energy and climate policy was discussed last week.)

Stem Cells:

The Democratic platform declares, "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." President George W. Bush limited federal research support to stem cell lines that had been derived from human embryos prior to August 9, 2001. The Democratic platform would evidently expand research funding to include using stem cells derived from embryos left over from fertility treatments. It is silent on the question of whether or not stem cells derived from embryos made specifically for research would qualify.

The Republican platform says, "We call for a ban on human cloning and a ban on the creation of or experimentation on human embryos for research purposes." This seems to flatly ban both public and private human embryonic stem cell research. The human cloning ban also appears to ban both reproductive cloning (to make babies) and therapeutic cloning (to make immunologically matched cells and tissues for transplant). Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says that he favors federal funding for stem cell research, but he has also supported legislation that would have banned therapeutic cloning. The Democratic platform is silent on the issue of human cloning, but its general support for human embryonic stem cell research can reasonably be interpreted as supporting the cloning of embryos from which to derive transplant cells and tissues that are matched to specific patients. On the other hand, the Republicans do call for a major expansion of research using adult stem cells, umbilical cord blood, and cells reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells.

Reproductive Health:

With regard to sex education, the Republican Party's slogan is, "Just say no!" The platform calls for "replacing 'family planning' programs for teens with increased funding for abstinence education, which teaches abstinence until marriage as the responsible and expected standard of behavior." The platform goes further, stating, "We oppose school-based clinics that provide referrals, counseling, and related services for abortion and contraception." However, scientific support for the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education is lacking. A 2007 report done for the Department of Health and Human Services found that youth in abstinence-only education programs were no more likely than youth in regular sex education programs to have abstained from sex. In addition, the report found that students in abstinence-only programs "had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age." Interestingly, kids who had received abstinence-only instruction were no more likely to engage in unprotected sex than those who hadn't.

In contrast, the Democratic Party platform "strongly supports access to comprehensive affordable family planning services and age-appropriate sex education which empower people to make informed choices and live healthy lives." The platform further claims, "We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions." While there is some evidence to support the latter claim, there is also countervailing evidence against it. The debate over sex education is fraught with assertions based more on ideology than evidence. In essence, the platforms are expressing each party's larger cultural attitudes toward human sexuality.

Scientific Integrity:

"We will end the Bush Administration's war on science, restore scientific integrity, and return to evidence-based decision-making," declares the platform of the party of progressives. It is true that the Bush administration has been more ham-fisted than previous administrations when trying to suppress scientific information that seemed to go against its policies. The Republican platform makes no specific statements about scientific integrity, but often mentions its support for "sound science" in guiding public policy. Republicans make it clear that scientific findings do not drive policy by themselves; costs and benefits must be weighed in order to come up with the proper policies. For example, the GOP platform says, "We can—and should—address the risk of climate change based on sound science without succumbing to the no-growth radicalism that treats climate questions as dogma rather than as situations to be managed responsibly."

Space Exploration:

The conservative party insists, "We share the vision of returning Americans to the moon as a step toward a mission to Mars." For their part, the Democrats promise to "invest in a strong and inspirational vision for space exploration." The Democrats only mention the moon in the context of uniting the country behind great projects such as a push to achieve energy independence. Pretty clearly both major parties see space chiefly as a stage for enacting dramas of national greatness rather than a medium for practicing science.

The Internet:

The really good news is that the Republicans and Democrats both claim that they want to use the Internet to make the federal government more transparent and accountable. The former self-described party of fiscal conservatism, a.k.a. the Republican Party, asserts, "If billions are worth spending, they should be spent in the light of day. We will insist that, before either the House or Senate considers a spending bill, every item in it should be presented in advance to the taxpayers on the Internet." In addition, taxpayers should be able to monitor all federal contracts via the Internet.

The Democrats grandly promise even more transparency to be overseen by a "Chief Technology Officer for the nation." The progressive platform vows, "We will lift the veil of secret deals in Washington by publishing searchable, online information about federal grants, contracts, earmarks, loans, and lobbyist contacts with government officials. We will make government data available online and will have an online video archive of significant agency meetings." They also swear that all bills passed by Congress will be put online for five days where Americans can review and comment on them before they are signed into law. But wouldn't it be better if the bills were put online for comment before Congress passed them? The Democrats say that they will require Cabinet officials to participate in online town hall meetings in which the public can question them about issues before their agencies.

Both promise to punish people who use the Internet to harm children. The Democrats vow to "toughen penalties" and then "prosecute those who exploit the Internet to try to harm children." The Republicans agree: "The Internet must be made safe for children." The GOP traditionalists proudly claim that they have "led efforts to increase the funding necessary to track down and jail online predators." The Republicans support the federal ban on Internet gambling, but promise to "permanently ban Internet access taxes and stop all new cell phone taxes." The Democrats don't mention Internet gambling, nor do they say anything about Internet taxes, but Congress did pass a 7-year moratorium on Internet taxes last year.

Research Funding:

Both the Republicans and the Democrats strongly favor making the Research and Development Tax Credit permanent. The idea is that this tax break will spur technological innovation. The Republican platform says, "We support federal investment in basic and applied biomedical research." Why? Because such funding is supposed to boost America's global competitiveness and lead to innovative cures.

The Democrats declare, "Over the past eight years, the current Administration has not only failed to promote biomedical and stem cell research, it has actively stood in the way of that research." Actually, the Bush administration's support for the National Institutes of Health has held steady at around $30 billion per year. However, the Democrats pledge, "We will increase funding to the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the National Cancer Institutes." By how much? "We will double federal funding for basic research," the progressives promise.

Both Democrats and Republicans clearly recognize the centrality of science and technology in driving economic growth, and also believe that the government has some responsibility for managing the cultural disorientation that technological progress can induce. But was Vannevar Bush right? Do we really need a national research establishment funded and, to some extent, directed by the federal government to engender economic growth? Perhaps not. A 2003 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report, The Sources of Economic Growth, found "a marked positive effect of business-sector R&D, while the analysis could find no clear-cut relationship between public R&D activities and growth, at least in the short term." While the Republicans express a bit more skepticism than the Democrats, the platforms show that both parties still buy the vision of a government-funded science-industrial complex.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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