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November 5, 2008updated 19 Aug 2016 10:07am

What does Obama’s election mean for science and technology?

Obama's campaign team pointed out that as a share of the Gross Domestic Product, American federal investment in the physical sciences and engineering research has dropped by half since 1970. At the same time, a recent international study found that

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Obama’s campaign team pointed out that as a share of the Gross Domestic Product, American federal investment in the physical sciences and engineering research has dropped by half since 1970.

At the same time, a recent international study found that US students perform lower on scientific assessments than students in 16 other economically developed nations, and lower than 20 economically developed nations in mathematics. There are signs that many US citizens are not ideally suited to participate in the 21st century economy.

As Barack Obama says, “America risks being left behind in the global economy: Revolutionary advances in information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology and other fields are reshaping the global economy. Without renewed efforts, the United States risks losing leadership in science, technology and innovation.”

So what does Obama’s election as president mean for technology? Let’s start with a look at his track record as Senator…[click continue reading for Obama’s plans in the field of science and technology]…

For one thing, he seems to stand for openness and equality when it comes to technology. He and Senator Tom Coburn teamed up to pass a law that they said will “lift the veil of secrecy in Washington”, by creating a Google-like search engine that will allow “ordinary Americans” to track federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and loans online.

In the Senate, Obama passed three amendments to the America COMPETES Act, which is now law, to increase participation of women and underrepresented minorities in the professions of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Also, to offer competitive state grants to support summer term education programs to help students develop skills in mathematics and problem solving; and establish a mentoring program for women and minorities as they advance in those fields.

He seems fairly keen on the Internet. He opened his website to enable citizens to submit opinions and information on important policy issues: about 850,000 are said to have responded and posted comments and ideas to the site. He said, “The campaign’s technology activities demonstrate the important and positive role technology would play in an Obama administration re-connect Americans with their democracy in new ways.”

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When it comes to science, Obama has been a long-term supporter of increased stem cell research. He introduced legislation while a member of the Senate that would allow embryonic stem cell research in Illinois. He co-sponsored legislation to allow greater federal government funding on a wider array of stem cell lines – he says he believes we need, “high ethical standards that allow for research on stem cells derived from embryos produced for in vitro fertilization, embryos that would otherwise be needlessly destroyed.”

John McCain set himself apart from the rest of the Republican field by saying he was also pro stem cell research, saying it offers “tremendous hope for those suffering from a variety of deadly diseases”. But he took a stronger stance on cloning: he said he would ban human cloning of any kind.

Obama has also said he is against ‘human cloning’, but it’s possible he will allow so-called ‘therapeutic cloning’. While in the Illinois senate, Obama voted against a 2001 bill that would have banned all types of cloning in the state.

Therapeutic cloning is a technique that would be used to produce cloned embryos, but only to create stem cells that can in turn be used to repair damaged or defective tissue in the parent of the cloned cells. Such stem cells could theoretically be used to grow replacement livers or hearts (or other organs) for transplant without fear of rejection.

So what are Obama’s other key initiatives when it comes to science and technology?

He says he will protect the openness of the Internet, supporting the principle of network neutrality to, as he puts it, “preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet.” But while he says he also believes in First Amendment freedoms and “our right to artistic expression”, he will also be looking to support tough penalties, increased enforcement resources and forensic tools for law enforcement to identify and prosecute people who abuse the Internet to try to exploit children.

He wants to get broadband to “every community” in America. He says he will achieve this 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.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Obama’s attitude to technology is how he intends to use it to “open up Government to its citizens”.

“The Bush Administration has been one of the most secretive, closed administrations in American history,” he says. “Our nation’s progress has been stifled by a system corrupted by millions of lobbying dollars contributed to political campaigns, the revolving door between government and industry, and privileged access to inside information — all of which have led to policies that favor the few against the public interest.”

He says he will use the latest technologies to reverse this dynamic, “creating a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America’s citizens.” He says he will use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens.

He says he will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO), to “ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.”

Ultimately, says Obama, he will give, “Americans the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision-making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago.” But he’s not forgotten about fears over ‘big brother’, either. He says he will safeguard citizens’ right to privacy: “As president, [I] will strengthen privacy protections for the digital age and will harness the power of technology to hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy.”

He’s got a load of schemes such as investing $150bn over the next ten years in renewable energy research – biofuels, plug-in hybrids and so on. Similarly he says he will increase funding for biomedical research, and he says he believes it should be possible to lower health care costs by investing in technology – he has said he will invest $10 billion a year over the next five years to move the US health care system to broad adoption of standards-based electronic health information systems, including electronic health records.

He wants to see better science and mathematics teaching so students are better prepared for these subjects when they start college. And, as is fitting for America’s first black president, he has said he, “Will also work to increase the representation of minorities and women in the science and technology pipeline, tapping the diversity of America to meet the increasing demand for a skilled workforce. The challenges of the 21st century can only be met by combining many skills from people with many backgrounds. America’s diversity is a clear competitive advantage if we use it.”

He says he will reform the patent system, too: “A system that produces timely, high-quality patents is essential for global competitiveness in the 21st century. By improving predictability and clarity in our patent system, we will help foster an environment that encourages innovation.”

Finally, Obama says he intends to reverse the decline in federal funding of science and research. He says he will double federal funding for basic research over ten years, as he puts it, “Changing the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology.”

Tom Berquist is Ingres CFO and former large cap software analyst at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. I asked him what he thought Obama’s election might mean for science and technology. “Obama supports net neutrality (keeping the internet open) and he wants to put broadband into every consumer’s home in America,” said Berquist.

“He wants to double funding for basic research over the next ten years which will help both the technology and science industries. He wants to make the R&D tax credit permanent while reforming the US patent system. And, he wants to increase the protection on American Intellectual property in the US and abroad, particularly in China.”

“These are all good things for the technology industry,” Berquist said, “however, I do worry that he is going to have to dig the country out of recession which is going to focus his attention on consumers and away from businesses over the next two years.”

“His proposed increase in the capital gains tax rate will hurt stock ownership on the margin and make it more difficult for startup tech companies to get funded,” Berquist argued. “And finally, the increase in taxes for high income earners will make them less likely to take risks and building new technology companies is all about taking risks.”

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