A group of academics, think-tank and industry representatives from around the Midwest recently gathered in Chicago to assess how globalization has impacted the heartland.
They talked about the loss of manufacturing, the shift to low-wage jobs and the brain drain that’s accompanied the removal of trade barriers.
And the former governors, university heads and others, brought together by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, brainstormed on how the region could make a comeback.
Two words kept coming up: science and education.
“We must put science at the forefront,” declared Roger Beachy, the founding president and director of the Danforth plant-science center in St. Louis.
While the Indian and Chinese governments make massive investments in biotechnology and agriculture, he said, our government has lagged in the basic research that could some day lead to new products.
We must elect a president who supports science, said Beachy.
Noting there are big differences in John McCain’s and Barack Obama’s approaches, Beachy referred the group to www.Sciencedebate2008.com, where both candidates answered 14 questions on a range of science issues. Responses are posted, and readers can grade them.
Sciencedebate2008 is a nonprofit organization sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the Council on Competitiveness, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, among others. It doesn’t endorse candidates.
Some of the candidates’ differences are ideological, though the answers are nuanced enough to make those subtle.
There is no mention, for example, of McCain runningmate Sarah Palin’s past stated support for allowing creationism along with evolution in schools.
And on embryonic stem-cell research, both McCain and Obama say they support federal funding, though only Obama said he would immediately lift the ban on it. Palin supports the ban.
Other answers reflect different views of the role of government. Shawn Otto, the CEO of sciencedebate2008, noted that on scientific innovation, Obama wants to double government funding of basic research in 10 years.
While McCain says he’d fund research in certain emerging fields, his plan centers on providing incentives to industry, through deregulation and lower taxes.
“Innovation is really what drives the American economy,” said Otto, stressing that science and technology have been responsible for half the nation’s economic growth since World War II.
Corporations, however, invest only 4 percent of their research and development money in basic research because of the time it takes to turn that into new products, he said.
On science education, McCain likewise said he’d bring corporations in, along with encouraging teacher development. Obama would support research on teaching strategies and create an office of Science, Technology Engineering and Math education. Obama scores significantly higher than McCain on every question with the roughly 1,300 online voters; McCain’s answers earned many F’s.
Science and technology directly affect our competitive edge and economic well-being. We need job-creating, energy-producing, environment-protecting innovations that take advantage of our natural resources and tap our brainpower. We need to imagine new cures to illnesses and new ways to improve life.
It’s not partisan to want a pro-science president. It’s practical.
Rekha Basu is an editorial columnist for the Des Moines Register. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.