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McCain Freeze Would Chill Science

19 September 2008 (All day)
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Fiscal cold shower. McCain aide Ike Brannon (left), with American Electronics Association lobbyist John Palafoutas, addresses science advocates.

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Next year's federal budget may not contain a penny more for research and education if Republican Senator John McCain (AZ) is elected U.S. president and has his way with Congress. An aide to the McCain campaign delivered that sober fiscal message today to science lobbyists, who pressed him unsuccessfully for leeway in the candidate's promise to curb federal spending by imposing a 1-year freeze on domestic discretionary spending.

"The purpose of the freeze is to evaluate each and every program, looking at which ones are worthwhile and which are a waste of taxpayer dollars," Ike Brannon, an economist and senior policy adviser to McCain, told the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation at a private gathering in Washington, D.C. The task force, a coalition of scientific and professional societies, had heard a more upbeat message in July from aides for Democratic Senator Barack Obama (IL), who has proposed doubling over 10 years the budgets of a host of U.S. science agencies.

McCain has expressed similar views to those of Obama in other venues, including support for "full funding" of the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which authorizes a 7-year doubling of the budgets of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (ScienceNOW, 3 August 2007). But Brannon said today that there's been no talk within the campaign of allowing any flexibility in the proposed freeze. It would be part of McCain's 2010 budget submission next spring to Congress for the fiscal year that begins in October 2009, should he defeat Obama in November.

"Senator McCain realizes that it's difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of basic research," Brannon told Science after the closed-door briefing. "But the freeze applies to the entire budget, most of which doesn't relate to science. He hopes to be able to find savings from earmarks, from unnecessary subsidies, and from other programs that could then be applied to research."

Any talk of a 1-year freeze is deeply disappointing to members of the task force, formed in 2004 to push for "strong, sustained increases" in the research budgets at NSF, the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Defense. "When you look at all the problems this country is facing with regard to energy, the environment, and a competitive work force, we can't allow science and technology to atrophy and still expect to solve them," says Doug Comer, a lobbyist for Intel who chairs the task force.

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A description of each candidate's position on science and innovation is available on their respective Web sites, barackobama.com and johnmccain.com

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