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Washington should use the new wave of optimism for science to drive policy-making rather than to boost political agendas.

There was a general mood of optimism, at times verging on excitement, among delegates attending the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston last week. Many were convinced that science is poised to re-enter the political mainstream following the presidential election in November — having spent eight years at the margins of the United States political scene.

A packed session was addressed by representatives of the two remaining contenders for the Democrat nomination, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Both made it clear that their candidates would support a substantial increase in the science budget. Clinton has promised to double support for biomedical research over 10 years, and Obama, more ambitiously, to double spending on basic research within five.

In addition, both made a commitment to take steps to depoliticise the role of science advice. This reflects the outrage felt by many scientists at widely criticised moves by the current Bush administration to impose a political twist on scientific evidence on issues from stem-cell research to climate change.

Despite invitations, there was no representative from the leading Republican candidate, John McCain, who perhaps sensed that the scientific community has traditionally largely been Democrat territory. But McCain's relatively non-ideological stance on a range of issues, particularly his willingness to embrace the need for the US to take strong action to combat climate change, has won him supporters in the scientific community.

Given the signs that even the Bush administration is gradually accepting the importance of science and technology in its international relations –– including those with developing countries — there is reason to believe that this trend will gain momentum, whoever wins the election.

Implications for scientists from developing countries

At the same time, however, there are reasons to be cautious, on all sides. The promises by both Democratic candidates for increased science spending inevitably played well to an audience that has seen a 13 per cent fall in the purchasing power of the health research budget over the past five years, a position described by AAAS president David Baltimore as "criminal".

Furthermore, Obama has demonstrated his flair for imaginative initiatives with a commitment to spend US$150 billion over ten years to support research and development into biofuels and other energy sources.

But whoever wins the election will face a massive budget deficit incurred primarily through continuing US engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even the Clinton camp has been muttering about "fiscal responsibility" in its efforts to regain the political advantage over Obama.

For developing countries, the messages are equally mixed. Obama has made much of his own experience: his father is Kenyan and he spent four years in Indonesia as a child, both of which give him a legitimate claim to personal knowledge of the challenges such countries face.

But he has also caused alarm by statements indicating that he would make it easier to offer US citizenship to graduates from developing countries who complete their research training in the US. That might help fill the US need for qualified manpower, but it will do little to stem the continuing drain from developing countries of a significant proportion of their scientific talent.

The Republican perspective

There are also reasons to be cautious about McCain's promises. He, too, if elected president, would face the budgetary consequences of US engagement in the Middle East. As a supporter, he is likely to be far less enthusiastic than his Democrat rivals about cutting back financial commitments to the military.

Domestically, although he believes in strengthening the US economy by boosting its technological strength, he sees this as being achieved primarily through the market. Like most of the Republican candidates, he has declined to make any commitment to reinforcing the research infrastructure on which such strength is built, or even to improve the nation's science education.

On the international scene, some environmentalists claim that there is less than might appear behind McCain's stance on climate change. They point out, for example, that he has adopted the standard US position of refusing to endorse the Kyoto Protocol, or indeed to take any action before large developing countries such as China and India indicate their willingness to do so as well.

Equally worrying has been McCain's absence from the US Senate when climate change issues have come to the vote. Some argue that this confirms their fears that however moderate his personal views on science-related issues, he may be forced to harden them in his bid for support from the conservative wing of the Republican Party, and that what have become known as the "science wars" may therefore continue.

Back on the agenda

If that were to happen, both science and developing countries would be the losers. Ideological opposition has already hampered aid efforts. Sometimes this has been overt, not just for climate change but also for programmes intended to combat HIV/AIDS (where, in deference to the anti-abortion lobby, the US has chosen to focus on abstinence rather than contraception).

There have been less obvious impacts as well. Norman Neureiter, a former scientific adviser in the State Department, described in one AAAS session how recent developments, such as bilateral scientific agreements with several developing countries (including Libya), showed that science was coming back up the department's agenda.

But he also suggested that the department was reluctant to publicise such activity, presumably for fear of antagonising those clinging to the almost fundamentalist belief that the whole scientific enterprise is in the lap of "big government" — and who oppose assistance to developing countries that goes beyond merely supporting US interests.

Given the budgetary constraints under which a new Democrat administration would inevitably need to operate, the biggest change that it could bring about, whether headed by Clinton or Obama, would be to re-legitimise a political discourse in Washington that sees science as a source of enlightenment rather than merely support for a political agenda. Many in the US aid community would welcome this as supporting their own desires to get science-based development projects moving properly again.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

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