Revenge of the nerds

Clinton vs Obama in the science-policy bout. Round 1 to Clinton.

Daniel Engber reports on the Democrats’ deputies sent to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Advantage Clinton:

In this battle of the campaign stereotypes, Hillary came out the clear winner. Kalil began with a series of charts depicting the decline of American research funding. Then he laid out Clinton’s plan to double funding for the NIH, the NSF, the NIST, and the research arms of the DOD and DOE. She’d reverse the ban on embryonic stem cell research, triple the size of graduate research fellowships, push for the creation of an ARPA-E, and restore the authority of the presidential science advisor. And this was just “version 1.0” of her agenda. The audience seemed appreciative—if not deeply moved—by the details.

Ross responded by saying that Obama’s plan is even more “detailed” than Clinton’s, “both in terms of breadth and in terms of detail.” He then invited us—repeatedly—to visit where we’d see just how often they “really get into the weeds on an issue.” Those without laptops learned only that Obama planned to double federal research funding, spend $150 billion on biofuels, and appoint a national Chief Technology Officer.

If by “tripling the size graduate of research fellowships” Clinton means tripling individual students’ stipends, I might be tempted to go back to the lab for another tour. I suspect that she means tripling the number of fellowships available. Some problems are easily solved by throwing more money at them; the shortage—should it be real—of S&T doctoral candidates isn’t obviously one of them. We’ve been down this road before. An NSF report in the late ‘80s warned of a looming shortage of scientists and research engineers. Many who started on PhD programs at the time found themselves, on graduation, on the short end of the post-Cold War peace dividend. Funding for basic research in the physical sciences was slashed, and the aerospace and defense-technology industries weren’t hiring. Not that I’m bitter.

Today, the argument is more caught up with concerns about immigration and national security. Foreign grad students have always seemed like a terrific bargain—other, poorer countries foot the bill for sixteen years of primary education and college, and then send us their best students to work for peanuts as RAs, with most of the very best staying on to power the American economy. As with the H1-B controversy, some claim that foreign grad students depress incentives to Americans to become scientists and engineers. I’m not convinced, and I haven’t seen any credible estimates of the wage elasticity of supply of physicists.

Clinton’s plan is, no surprise, well laid out. Obama’s…well, its heart is in the right place, but those weeds are a bit sparse, and it’s very heavily infotech oriented. And both have a disturbing fondness for ethanol; now that Iowa and Illinois have voted, can we stop pandering to Big Maize?

While we’re speaking of restoring the authority of the presidential science advisor (a court-jester position in the Bush administration, no offense to any of the benighted souls who’ve held it) and appointing a Chief Technology Officer (Jerry Yang might be on the job market soon), how about reviving the Office of Technology Assessment? Amid the hoopla of the Gingrich revolution, his shuttering of this small but immensely useful agency received little attention. Rush Holt and Jeff Bingaman have been pushing for a new office to take on the role of OTA, to little avail. And might I suggest Rush Holt for Director of OSTP?

Update: I see that there’s already a “bring back the OTA” blogging groundswell.

Update redux: Too many good data in the new Science and Engineering Indicators 2008. On public attitudes towards federal funding of S&T research:

# In 2006, 87% of Americans expressed support for government funding of basic research, up from levels around 80% in past surveys dating back to 1979.

# The percentage of Americans who said that the government spends too little on scientific research grew from 34% to 41% between 2002 and 2006.

# Other kinds of federal spending, however, generate even stronger public support.