We have heard debates, convention speeches, and campaign events with lots of talk about jobs and foreign oil and national security. But what about where the candidates stand on another matter critical to innovation in our country and the future of healthcare: life sciences?
Neither President Obama nor Governor Romney has released many specifics on this topic, but from various sources we can cobble together a picture of how life sciences might fare under their tenures. It is far easier to paint this picture for Obama, for whom we have four years of policy to evaluate. For Romney, we have to rely on what his campaign has said and what we can extrapolate from his time as governor of Massachusetts, a big biomedical hub. Here are a few areas where we can compare the candidates.
Government funding serves as the foundation for U.S. biomedical research—in academia, nonprofit research institutes, and even small businesses. The National Institutes of Health is the primary provider, but grants and contracts are also issued by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Energy, and others.
Obama has consistently said research funding should be a high priority, even (perhaps especially) in bad economic times. During his administration, Obama has every year requested budget increases, albeit modest ones, for NIH. In 2009, his stimulus package included some $10 billion for science funding, representing the single largest injection of new funding the biomedical research community has ever seen. He also requested budget increases for the DOE’s Office of Science and NSF, saying in a 2009 speech to the National Academy of Sciences that the country needed a “historic investment” in science, and laying out plans to double budgets for several smaller science funding agencies.
In his proposal for the FY 2013 budget, Obama called for a marginal increase to the NIH budget (a total of $30.7 billion) as well as a 5 percent boost to NSF, bringing that agency’s budget to $7.4 billion. (However, if sequestration–the so-called “fiscal cliff”–becomes reality, those agencies face an 8% cut.
Romney’s campaign plan calls for sending Congress “on Day One [a bill] that cuts non-security discretionary spending by 5 percent across the board,” according to his website. (Neither Romney nor Obama’s campaigns responded to our requests for information.) He also seeks to pass the House Republican Budget proposal—known as the Ryan plan—and to roll back non-security spending to pre-2008 levels. According to an analysis from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the House budget plan would mean an 8 percent cut for non-defense R&D from Obama’s requested budget, or 5 percent less than FY 2012.
It is not clear exactly how such a cut would work. But testimony from NIH director Francis Collins to a Senate subcommittee earlier this year about how potential sequestration cuts would affect his agency are informative: he said NIH would have to award 2,300 fewer grants in FY 2013, representing “almost a quarter of our new and competing grants.”
Stem cell research
This was a hot topic when Obama took office. Within six months, he issued an executive order to overturn many of the limitations on stem cell research established by President George W. Bush. That order was challenged in court and upheld, allowing human embryonic stem cell research to proceed.
Romney’s position is closer to that of Bush. As governor, Romney “chose to support life by vetoing a bill that would have allowed the cloning of human embryos,” according to his campaign website. Calling stem cell research “a great scientific frontier,” Romney’s plan endorses continued studies on adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, while avoiding work that would create new embryos for research.
Both candidates have spoken about the need to improve America’s education system. In response to a question about boosting education specifically for science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM) at ScienceDebate.org, Romney said, “A world-class education system requires world-class teachers in every classroom. … Policies for recruitment, evaluation, and compensation should treat teachers like the professionals they are, not like interchangeable widgets.”
During his presidency, Obama has advocated for additional funds to improve STEM education. In 2010, he released a plan to revise the No Child Left Behind Act with more than $200 million for STEM programs at needy schools. This year, he announced the Master Teacher Corps, a new program to reward high-performing science and math teachers in elementary and secondary schools with $20,000 bonuses. The plan will start with 2,500 teachers and include 10,000 within four years. However, neither plan has been fully funded to date.
Both candidates support teaching evolution in science classes and confining discussions of creationism or intelligent design to religion or philosophy courses.
More on the candidates
- When Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he proposed an economic stimulus package targeted in part at the state’s biotech industry. It was ultimately passed by the state legislature as a $100 million stimulus, which helped establish a Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.
- This year, the White House released the National Bioeconomy Blueprint, a guide for supporting life science-based businesses and biotech in general. The program goals include developing a skilled workforce, bolstering R&D, translating advances from labs to business, reducing onerous regulations, and encouraging public-private collaborations.
- In a letter to the American public, 68 winners of the Nobel Prize in science voiced support for Obama’s re-election. “President Obama understands the key role science has played in building a prosperous America, has delivered on his promise to renew our faith in science-based decision making and has championed investment in science and technology research that is the engine of our economy,” they wrote.