According to Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Solow, technological progress has been responsible for about half of U.S. economic growth since the end of World War II. Politicians of all stripes recognize the importance of science and technology to our future well-being. So what do the Democratic and Republican party platforms have to say about science and technology policy? Below are a few highlights.
Stem cells. President George W. Bush restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to work done with cell lines derived before August 2001. In its 2008 platform, the Democratic Party promised to "lift the current Administration's ban on using federal funding for embryonic stem cells." The 2012 platform notes that Obama "issued an executive order repealing the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research" in March 2009.
The 2012 Republican platform calls for "expanded support for the stem-cell research that now offers the greatest hope for many afflictions—with adult stem cells, umbilical cord blood, and cells reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells—without the destruction of embryonic human life." The platform is silent on the question of privately funded research on embryonic stem cell research, but it does advocate a "ban on human cloning and on the creation of or experimentation on human embryos."
Because in vitro fertilization (IVF) often involves the creation of multiple embryos, some of which are discarded, such a ban probably would prohibit standard IVF techniques that have resulted in the births of 5 million babies worldwide since 1979. Those babies include at least three of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's grandchildren.
Energy. Both the Democrats and the Republicans favor "energy independence" and an "all-of-the-above" energy policy. Back in 2008, however, the Democrats declared that "we know we can't drill our way to energy independence." Instead the 2008 platform promised to "fast-track investment of billions of dollars over the next ten years to establish a green energy sector."
President Obama proudly pointed out in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention that renewable energy generation has doubled under his administration. Furthermore, the U.S. has cut its oil imports 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." Evidently the 2008 platform was wrong: We can "drill our way" to energy independence.
The amount of power produced by wind turbines has indeed doubled since Obama took office, from 52,000 gigawatt-hours in 2009 to 139,000 gigawatt-hours over the last 12 months. Net solar power generation rose to 2,400 gigawatt-hours from 900 gigawatt-hours in 2009. Since Americans consume 4 million gigawatt-hours of electricity each year, that means wind power contributed 3.5 percent and solar power less than 0.1 percent of the total.
What about Obama's claim to have opened up millions of acres to hydrocarbon exploration? 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 first three years of the Obama administration. The Clinton administration leased 11.4 million acres in its first three years.
The Bush administration saw 9,276 new wells drilled in its first three years, compared to the 9,693 under the Obama administration. But 15,095 new wells began production as oil prices rose during the last three years of the Bush administration.
Regarding nuclear power, in 2010 the Obama administration proposed tripling federal loan guarantees for building new plants, from the Bush administration's $18 billion to $54 billion.
"Unlike the current Administration," the 2012 GOP platform declares, "we will not pick winners and losers in the energy marketplace. Instead, we will let the free market and the public's preferences determine the industry outcomes." Regarding renewable sources of energy, the platform states, "The taxpayers should not serve as venture capitalists for risky endeavors."
So far, so good. But then the GOP platform notes that no new nuclear plants have been built in 30 years and calls for "timely processing of new reactor applications currently pending at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission." Does this mean nuclear power is a "winner"? There is not a word about why taxpayers should serve as nuclear power venture capitalists, funding billions in federal loan guarantees. If solar socialism is bad, why is nuclear socialism OK?
Space exploration. Neither party has much love for government space exploration anymore. The 2008 Democratic platform promised to "invest in a strong and inspirational vision for space exploration." Similarly, the 2012 Republican platform notes that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has "inspired generations of Americans." Since 2009 the NASA budget has fallen in constant-dollar terms by about 7 percent. To its credit, the Obama administration has focused more on privatizing and commercializing manned space travel, a fact the Republicans ignore.
Climate change. The 2008 Democratic platform announced, "We will lead to defeat the epochal, man-made threat to the planet: climate change." The Democrats also promised to "implement a market-based cap and trade system to reduce carbon emissions." That didn't happen. The 2008 promise to enact a cap-and-trade carbon rationing scheme died in the U.S. Senate in 2010.
Back in 2008, the Democratic platform declared that addressing climate change must include "binding and enforceable commitments to reducing emissions" by countries such as China and India. The utter failure of negotiations at three subsequent United Nations climate change conferences has shown the Obama administration that achieving such commitments is much easier said than done.
In their 2012 platform, the Democrats nevertheless "pledge to continue showing international leadership on climate change." As it happens, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are back down to their 1992 level, largely due to fracking, a new technology combining the injection of high pressure water with horizontal drilling to release natural gas previously trapped in shale, which has produced an abundant cheap supply of lower-carbon natural gas.
The 2012 Republican platform does not see climate change as an "epochal, man-made threat." It promises to "oppose any and all cap and trade legislation" and "to prohibit the EPA from moving forward with new greenhouse gas regulations." But even if the GOP were to acknowledge that man-made warming is occurring, that would not commit the party to implementing draconian carbon rationing policies.
After analyzing both the Democratic and Republican Party platforms, it's evident that science is secondary to politics. Politicians of both parties manage to find science that conveniently supports the policies they already favor.