Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Obama, Romney Respond to Science Questions

The non-profit group Science Debate submitted fourteen science-related questions to the Obama and Romney campaigns. The organization would prefer that the candidates hold a debate on science, but we all know that will never happen, so written responses to questions is about the best we'll get for now.

You can read the questions and answers on the Scientific American web site.

One of the questions was about space exploration:

12. Space. The United States is currently in a major discussion over our national goals in space. What should America's space exploration and utilization goals be in the 21st century and what steps should the government take to help achieve them?

You can click the above link to read the responses. We can safely assume that neither candidate actually wrote them. Presidential campaigns receive hundreds of these litmus-test questionnaires. The ones chosen for response are assigned to some staffer who probably runs it past a campaign issues director. For the most important questionnaires, the candidate might give them a quick review. But it's not unusual for a position paper to be issued that stakes a position the candidate knows nothing about.

With the Science Debate responses, as we might expect they're pretty much fluff — lots of inspirational rhetoric with few specifics or discussion of how to pay for it.

But for those who've fantasized that Mitt Romney would resurrect Constellation and give NASA an Apollo redux ... your fantasy is over.

In a section titled Focusing NASA, the Romney campaign replied:

A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities. I will ensure that NASA has practical and sustainable missions. There will be a balance of pragmatic and top-priority science with inspirational and groundbreaking exploration programs. (emphasis added)

One observer pointed to the Obama campaign's reply to the first question as a sign that NASA might get more funding in a second Obama administration:

I am committed to doubling funding for key research agencies to support scientists and entrepreneurs, so that we can preserve America’s place as the world leader in innovation, and strengthen U.S. leadership in the 21st century’s high-tech knowledge-based economy.

But in Obama's August 29 appearance on Reddit.com, the President indicated that the solution isn't more dollars, it's smarter spending:

The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level — so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight.

I took that as an oblique reference to the $3 billion Congress is forcing NASA to spend per year on the Space Launch System, which has no missions or destinations.

Imagine what just $1 billion could do to accelerate development of plasma propulsion engine technology being developed by Ad Astra. But Congress is forcing NASA to use 1970s Space Shuttle technology as propulsion for the SLS.

For those space advocates looking for a presidential candidate to make a Kennedyesque speech proposing that hundreds of billions be spent on a human deep-space mission ... It's not going to happen. And neither candidate sees an upside to making space a significant issue in this election.

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