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Where do they stand on science?

“Who will be the best president for America in a science-dominated world?”

That's the question posed by Science Debate 2008, a group of scientists, journalists and concerned citizens who wanted to engage Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain on issues that normally aren't addressed on the campaign trail.

Both candidates submitted written responses to 14 questions about science, technology, health and the environment, and some of their answers are excerpted below. Their complete replies are online at www.sciencedebate2008.com.

Q: What is your position on government regulation and funding of stem cell research?

McCain: While I support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, I believe clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress. Moreover, I believe that recent scientific breakthroughs raise the hope that one day this debate will be rendered academic.

I also support funding for other research programs, including amniotic fluid and adult stem cell research, which hold much scientific promise and do not involve the use of embryos.

Obama: As president, I will lift the current administration's ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001, and I will ensure that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight. …

Hundreds of thousands of embryos stored in the U.S. in vitro fertilization clinics will not be used for reproductive purposes, and will eventually be destroyed. I believe that it is ethical to use these extra embryos for research that could save lives.

Q: How would you prioritize space in your administration?

McCain: Although the general view in the research community is that human exploration is not an efficient way to increase scientific discoveries given the expense and logistical limitations, the role of manned space flight goes well beyond the issue of scientific discovery and is (a) reflection of national power and pride. …

Current U.S. space operations policy commits the U.S. to completing the International Space Station (ISS) by 2010 and then terminating the space shuttle flights, with the completion of the ISS. I have called on the Bush administration to suspend its decommissioning of the shuttle until the next president is in office, and to retain the option of continuing shuttle flights to the ISS in the interim period until the Ares/Orion vehicle is in service.

Obama: Under my administration, NASA not only will inspire the world with both human and robotic space exploration, but also will again lead in confronting the challenges we face here on Earth, including global climate change, energy independence and aeronautics research. …

Between 1958 and 1973, the National Aeronautics and Space Council oversaw the entire space arena for four presidents. I will re-establish this council. … It will solicit public participation, engage the international community, and work toward a 21st-century vision of space that constantly pushes the envelope on new technologies as it pursues a balanced national portfolio that expands our reach into the heavens and improves life here on Earth.

Q: Many government scientists report political interference in their job. Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making?

McCain: We have invested huge amounts of public funds in scientific research. The public deserves to have the results of that research. … Denial of the facts will not solve any of these problems. Solutions can only come about as a result of a complete understanding of the problem. I believe policy should be based upon sound science.

I support having a science and technology adviser within the White House staff and restoring the credibility and role of OSTP (Office of Science & Technology Policy) as an office within the White House structure.

Obama: I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best available, scientifically valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees.

Policies must be determined using a process that builds on the long tradition of open debate that has characterized progress in science, including review by individuals who might bring new information or contrasting views. I have already established an impressive team of science advisers, including several Nobel laureates, who are helping me to shape a robust science agenda for my administration.

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