Looking for a Tech-Savvy President

By Michael Feldman

February 1, 2008

For those of you who may not have noticed, this is one of the most unusual U.S. presidential primary seasons in decades. Beyond just the colorful personalities of the candidates (and spouses) and their propensity to engage in political mud wrestling, one of the most interesting facets of the campaign has been the inability of anyone to wrap up their party’s nomination before exposing themselves to the scrutiny of voters in the most populous states in the country. For the first time that I can remember, the majority of the American electorate will actually have a chance to choose the presidential nominees of both major parties (albeit that choice has effectively been narrowed down to two candidates per party).

So as we head into the 22-state Super Tuesday primaries on February 5th, I thought this might be a good time to offer some perspective on the candidates’ views on science and technology issues. Specifically, I wanted to see how the candidates came down on science and math education, the H-1B visa program, federal funding of basic science research, and network/broadband infrastructure. While these may not be the hot button issues on the campaign trail, they have real importance for the HPC crowd and the greater IT community. For this article, I’ve decided to focus on the most likely candidates to win their party’s nomination. With the departure of Rudy Giuliani and John Edwards this week, that leaves us with John McCain and Mitt Romney on the Republican side and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the Democratic side.

Let’s look at the Republicans first. Romney and McCain are at somewhat of a disadvantage since they are associated with an administration that has, shall we say, a perverse sense of what science is about. And unfortunately, the views of the two GOP candidates in this area are difficult to evaluate since neither Romney’s nor McCain’s Web site talks much about a science/technology agenda. However, both have long public records and have staked out positions on these issues from time to time.

Mitt Romney – www.mittromney.com

Although there’s not much about science research programs on Romney’s Web site, in a recent interview with TechCrunch, Romney says he supports increased federal funding for science research, especially in the area of energy use:

“[T]he way a nation like ours stays ahead permanently from other nations is having superior technology and innovation and one of those areas that is certainly going to be true in relates to energy and I would like to see the federal government substantially increase its investment in basic science and basic research related to energy efficiency, energy production, energy distribution, and I will substantially increase funding in those areas.”

In the same TechCrunch interview, Romney also expresses his views on H-1B visas:

“Ultimately we’re in a competitive battle with the rest of the world; a battle where we need to stay the most powerful nation in the world. And the only way our nation stays ahead forever is with superior technology and innovation. And if we need additional folks who have skills that can contribute to our country then by all means let’s welcome them in and if we see that our kids are not competing in certain areas let’s help our [kids] understand what they need to become competitive.”

Regarding Romney’s stance on improving science and math education, I could only find a single statement on his Web site that referred to this issue. Under a “Strategy of a Stronger America” banner, it says: “Emphasize math and science, while promoting innovative approaches such as charter schools and public-private partnerships, to ensure American workers have the intellectual capital and skills to compete in the 21st century economy.”

John McCain – www.johnmccain.com

Like Romney, McCain backs the IT industry’s desire for more H-1B visas. Again like Mitt, McCain doesn’t talk much about the need to focus on science and math curriculum. Here’s an excerpt from his Web site, which implies that school choice is his weapon of choice for creating a more competitive workforce:

“John McCain understands that globalization will not automatically benefit every American. We must prepare the next generation of workers by making American education worthy of the promise we make to our children and ourselves. We must be a nation committed to competitiveness and opportunity. We must fight for the ability of all students to have access to any school of demonstrated excellence. We must place parents and children at the center of the education process, empowering parents by greatly expanding the ability of parents to choose among schools for their children.”

McCain’s Web site is pretty much devoid of any narrative about federal funding of science research. However, he did vote for the 2007 America COMPETES Act (H.R.2272), which supported greatly increased funding for the NSF, DOE Office of Science and other federal research agencies as well as increased support for math and science education at all levels.

On the issue of upgrading broadband infrastructure, McCain has taken the stance of relying on market forces to drive the buildout. In a recent CNET article, he stated:

“I have been a leading advocate in the Senate for seeking market-based solutions to increasing broadband penetration. We should place the federal government in the role of stimulator, rather than regulator, of broadband services, remove state and local barriers to broadband deployment, and facilitate deployment of broadband services to rural and underserved communities.”

Finally, McCain says he’s a big fan of NASA and touts consistent support for funding of the space program on his Web site.

My take on the Republicans

Romney and McCain strike me as science and technology lightweights, especially in the realm of federal funding for basic research and science/math education. Since the Republican mantra for government is “less is more,” I’m not sure what else we should expect. That said, I assume both candidates would support bipartisan COMPETES-type initiatives in the future, but commitment to funding is the real issue here (see below). On the other hand, Romney and McCain are both tech business-friendly, not just in their support for more H-1B visas, but also in other areas, such as reducing corporate tax rates and making the R&D tax credit permanent.

While neither candidate has shown any interest in politicizing science, as has been done in the current administration, overall Romney and McCain have demonstrated little enthusiasm for science and technology issues. If I had to pick one, I’d go with McCain for his Senate support for NASA and the COMPETES Act. But his penchant for low taxes, high military spending and fiscal conservatism suggests he’s going to leave a lot of U.S. science and technology up to the private sector.

While the Republicans may think this approach is favorable to businesses, tech companies are unlikely to be enthusiastic. In a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Intel Chairman Craig Barrett expresses his frustration about the bipartisan failure of Congress to fund the science research and education agenda set out in the COMPETES Act. Writes Barrett:

“The funding decisions on the America COMPETES Act took place a few days after Congress passed a $250 billion farm bill. In the eyes of our political leaders, apparently, corn subsidies to Iowa farmers are more important for our competitiveness in the next century than investing a few billion in our major research universities.”

To be fair, the Republicans were only enablers here. The 2008 appropriations bill Barrett is referring to was devised in a Democratic-controlled Congress that decided to jettison most of the COMPETES funding in favor of a long list of election year “earmarks.” Speaking of the Democrats…

Hillary Clinton – www.hillaryclinton.com

Clinton has a whole Web page devoted to her “Innovation Agenda.” In it, she describes the roadmap for moving U.S. science and technology into the 21st century. Here’s her summary of the challenges involved:

“Other nations are increasingly investing in their innovation infrastructure, positioning themselves to challenge our leadership. In the last 12 years, China has doubled the percentage of GDP dedicated to R&D, and over that same period GDP itself doubled. Also, our share of the world’s scientists and engineers has declined, and too few American college students are preparing themselves for these careers. Fewer than 20 percent of American undergraduates are earning degrees in science or engineering, compared with more than 50 percent in China. And, we now rank 25th in broadband deployment.”

Always armed with the details, Clinton lays out a 9-point plan that outlines a number of programs aimed at increasing federal funding for science research and education. Here’s the short version:

  • Establish a $50-billion Strategic Energy Fund.
  • Increase the basic research budgets 50 percent over 10 years at NSF, the DOE’s Office of Science, and the DoD.
  • Increase the NIH budget by 50 percent over 5 years and aim to double it over 10 years
  • Direct the federal agencies to award prizes in order to accomplish specific innovation goals.
  • Triple the number of NSF fellowships and increase the size of each award by 33 percent.
  • Support initiatives to bring more women and minorities into the math, science, and engineering professions.
  • Support initiatives to establish leadership in broadband using public-private partnerships.
  • Make the R&D tax credit permanent.
  • Restore integrity to science policy.

Although Clinton’s Web site makes no mention of it, she also supports increasing the H-1B visa quotas.

Barack Obama – www.barackobama.com

Like Clinton, Obama has a Web page devoted exclusively to technology issues. And like his rival, he outlines a complete technology agenda, which, if anything, is expressed in even greater detail than Clinton’s. Increasing federal science funding and education are top priorities, as is modernizing network infrastructure. Obama also proposes that a CTO position be created at the executive level to oversee technology and information officers at the various federal agencies. Here are some of the highlights of his tech agenda:

  • Upgrade education to meet the needs of the 21st century.
  • Deploy next-generation broadband.
  • Modernize public safety networks.
  • Invest in the basic science research.
  • Make the R&D tax credit permanent.
  • Protect intellectual property at home and abroad.
  • Reform the patent system.
  • Reform immigration.

On this last point, Obama also supports the H-1B visa program. Beyond that, he wants to make it easier for foreign talent to live, work, and even attain permanent citizenship in the U.S.

Perhaps more than any other candidate, Obama expresses the view that our network infrastructure is a public good that needs active government support. Here’s an excerpt from his Web site:

“Barack Obama believes that America should lead the world in broadband penetration and Internet access. As a country, we have ensured that every American has access to telephone service and electricity, regardless of economic status, and Obama will do likewise for broadband Internet access. Full broadband penetration can enrich democratic discourse, enhance competition, provide economic growth, and bring significant consumer benefits. Moreover, improving our infrastructure will foster competitive markets for Internet access and services that ride on that infrastructure. Obama believes we can get true broadband to every community in America through a combination of reform of the Universal Service Fund, better use of the nation’s wireless spectrum, promotion of next-generation facilities, technologies and applications, and new tax and loan incentives.”

My take on the Democrats

Both Clinton and Obama seem to understand the role of the federal government in advancing science and technology for the public good, although neither one has taken a leadership role in the Senate on these issues. Their current stance of the H-1B visa program is similar to their Republican rivals, and currently lacks the nuance that will be needed to fix a flawed program. (Here’s my own two cents on this topic written last year.) The real challenge for a Democratic president, or any president for that matter, will be to establish a long-range science and technology agenda against a background of issues that always seem to demand more immediate attention, i.e., the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, homeland security, health care, the economy and so on.

Although both Democratic candidates demonstrate a good grasp of these issues, if forced to choose, I’d give the nod to Obama. He seems to have a deeper awareness of the critical nature of a 21st century network infrastructure and the importance of technology in general. As a candidate who’s been criticized for not offering a lot of specifics on policy, I was impressed with the level of detail that was offered on his Web site.

Final Thoughts

I’m not suggesting voters use the issues and policy positions discussed here as a litmus test for the candidates. But they do serve to illuminate some of their core values. Beyond just issues though, the four candidates offer a remarkable range of leadership styles and temperaments. I suspect it is these latter qualities that are going to make the difference to voters this year. Let’s face it, from the 50,000-foot level, a lot of their positions are indistinguishable from one another.

Even though it can be difficult to get a balanced view of the candidates from the mainstream media, the Internet and a growing number of cable networks are providing a wealth of material for interested voters to draw on. Obviously not all information is of equal value (or even accurate), but there has never been an opportunity to get so much unfiltered information about the candidates as there is today — not just from the “media” but from your fellow citizens who contribute their views in the open forum of the Internet. I assume anyone who’s gotten this far in the article has the interest and patience to do the research required to make an informed decision. I hope you do.

—–

As always, comments about HPCwire are welcomed and encouraged. Write to me, Michael Feldman, at [email protected].

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