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."
So the 2008 Platform was apparently wrong: we can "drill our way" at least part of the way to energy independence. The president also promised a future in which the country develops "a hundred-year supply of natural gas that's right beneath our feet" which will "support more than 600,000 new jobs in natural gas alone." He promised that if his policies are followed, the U.S. "can cut our oil imports in half by 2020."
Did we double our use of renewable energy? Indeed the amount of power produced by wind turbines has increased from 52,000 gigawatt-hours in 2009 to 139,000 gigawatt-hours in the past year. Solar power net generation rose to 2,400 gigawatt-hours in the past year from 900 gigawatt-hours in 2009. To provide some perspective, Americans consumed 4,000,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity in 2010, which means that wind power contributed 3.5 percent and solar power less than one-thousandth of the electricity consumed by Americans.
What about drilling? President Obama correctly claims to have opened millions of acres to drilling for hydrocarbons. But how does that compare with previous administrations? In its first three years, according to the Bureau of Land Management, the Bush administration leased 8.8 million acres for oil exploration and production, compared to 5.3 million for the Obama administration. The Clinton administration leased 11.4 million acres in its first three years.
What about the total number of new wells drilled on federal lands? The first three years of the Bush administration saw 9,276 new wells drilled, whereas under the Obama administration 9,693 wells were. Just as a comparison, during the global oil price run-up during the last three years of the Bush administration 15,095 new wells started producing. After the BP oil rig blowout, President Obama closed drilling on most of the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.
The 2008 goal of generating 25 percent of America's electricity using renewable sources by 2025 was not mentioned, but the 2012 Platform did note, "President Obama has encouraged innovation to reach his goal of generating 80 percent of our electricity from clean energy sources by 2035." How much progress has been made toward creating the 5 million green jobs promised in 2008? In this regard, the 2012 Platform offers the following odd locution: "We've supported nearly 225,000 clean energy jobs." Supported? A green job creation rate of 225,000 every four years suggests that only about 560,000 such jobs will be created by 2018, a shortfall of nearly 90 percent from the 2008 goal.
Still, it is heartening that the President recognizes the importance of natural gas production to the future of U.S. economy and job creation. This suggests that his administration will not endorse ideological environmentalists calls for a moratorium on fracking shale gas. The 2012 Democratic Platform declares, "We are expediting the approval process to build out critical oil and gas lines essential to transporting our energy for consumers." Really? It is true that the Obama Administration has approved the southern leg of the Keystone pipeline? Despite several analyses that concluded that it was safe enough to build, the administration has, however, delayed until after the November elections its decision about the northern leg which would transport oil sands crude from Canada to U.S. Gulf coast refineries.
With regard to nuclear power, the Obama administration in 2010 proposed tripling federal loan guarantees for building new nuclear power plants from the Bush administration's $18 billion to $54 billion. In the 2012 Platform nuclear power is mentioned in passing just once and there is an oblique reference to "reducing energy waste." The Obama administration did keep its promise to "protect" Nevada from the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility by basically shutting it down. However, the closing of that facility was not based on "sound science" as stated in the 2008 platform. An April 2011 report [PDF] by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) flatly concluded that the Department of Energy's "decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program was made for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons."
The Democratic Platform is much more welcoming of immigrants than is the Republican, but they both share the view that foreign-born students with advanced degrees should be encouraged to stay here to build innovative businesses and create jobs.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans have much love government space exploration anymore. The 2008 Democratic Platform promised to "invest in a strong and inspirational vision for space exploration." The 2012 Platform declared, "President Obama has charted a new mission for NASA to lead us to a future that builds on America's legacy of innovation and exploration." Since 2009, the NASA budget has been essentially flat while falling in constant dollar terms by about 7 percent by 2012. To its credit, the Obama administration scrapped NASA's moon shot program and has focused more on privatizing and commercializing manned space travel.
The 2008 Democratic Platform announced, "We will lead to defeat the epochal, man-made threat to the planet: climate change." The platform denounced the Bush administration's efforts "to deny the science of climate change and the need to act." The Democrats promised, "We will implement a market-based cap and trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophic change and we will set interim targets along the way to ensure that we meet our goal." Not only would cap-and-trade scheme stop man-made global warming, but "dedicating a portion of the revenues generated by an economy-wide cap and trade program" would pay for all those exciting new "investments" in clean energy they planned to make. Alas, this did not happen, since the 2008 promise to impose a cap-and-trade carbon rationing scheme died in the U.S. Senate in 2010.
Back in 2008, it was fashionable to believe that the chief obstacle to a global response to climate change was the obdurate Bush administration. "Never again will we sit on the sidelines, or stand in the way of collective action to tackle this global challenge," vowed the 2008 Democrats. The 2008 Platform acknowledged that addressing climate change must include "binding and enforceable commitments to reducing emissions, especially for those that pollute the most: the United States, China, India, the European Union, and Russia."
At the United Nations Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, in 2009, President Obama found that getting those binding agreements was far easier said than done. That conference collapsed when China publicly embarrassed Obama by refusing to give in to his demands that it commit to binding carbon emissions reduction targets. At subsequent U.N. climate conferences, even with Obama administration "leadership," all that was agreed upon is to have future meetings that might result in a new global climate compact to go into force by 2020.
In the 2012 Platform, the Democrats "pledge to continue showing international leadership on climate change, working toward an agreement to set emission limits in unison with other emerging powers." In addition, they intend to pursue cuts in domestic greenhouse gas emissions "though regulation and market solutions." As it happens, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are back down to their level in 1992. This is largely not due to Obama administration green energy policies, but because fracking has produced an abundant supply of cheap natural gas.
After analyzing both the Democratic and Republican Party platforms, it's evident (and depressing) that politicians always believe that science is on the side of any policy they favor.