Science Wars

Slate associate editor Daniel Engber sends along this dispatch from the AAAS meeting in Boston.

None of the candidates has agreed to attend the long-sought-after presidential debate on science and technology , scheduled for April 18 . But in what may have been a gesture of consolation, envoys from both the Clinton and Obama campaigns made surprise visits to Boston Saturday, to conduct a 90-minute “forum” at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

About 400 science researchers, policy wonks, and journalists packed into a meeting room to see the surrogates duke it out. In the Clinton corner was Tom Kalil , a ruddy, thick-necked bureaucrat armed with a PowerPoint presentation and a full clip of obscure facts about academe. (Did you know that the average age for receiving your first NIH R01 grant is 41?) Representing Obama was Alec Ross , a smarmy and pandering thirtysomething in shirtsleeves. “I’m one of those guys who’s deeply moved by data,” he said, and then failed to adduce a single obscure fact about academe through the course of the session.

In this battle of the campaign stereotypes, Hillary came out the clear winner. Kalil began with a series of charts depicting the decline of American research funding. Then he laid out Clinton’s plan to double funding for the NIH, the NSF, the NIST, and the research arms of the DOD and DOE. She’d reverse the ban on embryonic stem cell research, triple the size of graduate research fellowships, push for the creation of an ARPA-E , and restore the authority of the presidential science adviser. And this was just “Version 1.0” of her agenda . The audience seemed appreciative—if not deeply moved—by the details.

Ross responded by saying that Obama’s plan is even more “detailed” than Clinton’s, “both in terms of breadth and in terms of detail.” He then invited us—repeatedly—to visit , where we’d see just how often they “really get into the weeds on an issue.” Those without laptops learned only that Obama planned to double federal research funding, spend $150 billion on biofuels, and appoint a national chief technology officer.

What about the debate on April 18—would the candidates come out for that? Clinton: “Time will tell.”  Obama: “It’s being given serious consideration.”