Which Presidential Candidate Will Aid STEM Research Most?

“It’s Science and Technology, Stupid” wasn’t a bumper sticker — it was a Future Tense event held at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. earlier this week. The aim of the gathering was to determine which one of the two candidates for president would do more to advance research in scientific and medical fields as well as improve STEM education and promote technological innovation.

For a conference aiming to come to a decision on the candidates, the opening presentation by Konstantin Kakaes, the Bernard L. Schwartz fellow at the NAF, was sobering. Kakaes persuasively argued that politicians wildly overestimate how much their influence impacts research. He added that no party has a monopoly on science, or at least on misguided scientific reasoning. As an example, he brought up the boost-phase missile defense system, supported by politicians from both sides of the aisle, which has been conclusively proven to be an ineffective form of missile defense.

Following Kakaes’ talk, panelists Sheri Fink, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigator reporter and a medical doctor; Amanda Ripley, a contributing writer to Time; and Stacy Clin, counsel for Sen. Mike Enzi, Republican ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, took the stage with moderator Robert Wright, a senior editor at Atlantic. (Ripley, Wright, and Fink are also fellows at the New America Foundation.) The group discussed how politics are shaping—or failing to shape—government funding of research, health care reform, education, and technology policy.

The main disagreement when it comes to science between the two parties seems to rest in the area of funding and regulation. It’s hard to claim that one party or another is a bigger booster of the Internet, yet Republican and Democrat politicians split on the issues like net neutrality and government investment in broadband infrastructure. Cline further pointed out that the views of both parties could be fungible. For example, while President Barack Obama is a supporter of net neutrality, he chose not to push to have its principles applied to mobile internet.

Though Cline stated that Romney would freeze funding for much research and Obama plans to double it in certain areas, Fink responded that thanks to the fiscal crisis, there actually is “not much hope” of increasing federal money spent on such research in the coming years. But that doesn’t mean an end to acrimony: She predicts we’ll continue to see partisan debate over stem cell research and also health care: During the recent Obama-Romney debate, she said, the candidates continued to disagree over whether the infamous 12-member panel intended to cut health care costs could be considered “rationing.” While many Republicans warn that the panel could ban certain procedures, according to Fink, others argue that we genuinely do need to determine which treatments are actually effective and which are just wasteful spending.

The panelists then weighed in on the issue of STEM education, especially in light of the fact that American students seem to be falling behind their international peers when it comes to mathematical and scientific knowledge. Ripley offered an opinion that most approaches to improving STEM teaching seem to be looking at the problem in the wrong way. Instead of focusing on improving the quality of instruction and developing more rigorous programs, schools view gadgetry as the salvation to the STEM crisis. Technology seems to be slowly making its way into even the poorest of American schools, yet classrooms in countries that consistently outperform the U.S. remain relatively low-tech.