McCain, Obama and the Future of Science

Although many in the science community have longed to see the presidential candidates debate their stance on numerous science topics, other problems have taken precedence. There are some things, however, that we know regarding how the major-party candidates believe scientific issues should be handled in the coming years.

Climate Change

Climate change, for instance, is a concept that has taken root in the public consciousness and grown with every year. The enormity of this topic has led Senators Barack Obama and John McCain to take it seriously. Both have said that they believe greenhouse gases, which are thought to be primary causes of climate change, should be regulated with emission limits and a cap-and-trade system. With this, the overall greenhouse gas emissions would be limited, or capped, at a certain amount each year. Then, companies would be given permits to allow them to produce only a certain amount of greenhouse gas per year. If a company finds a way to decrease its emissions, it can sell its excess permits to other companies that may find it difficult to limit their emissions. It is hoped that emission permits would allow for decreased emissions that could potentially begin to arrest or turn the tide on climate changes, such as global warming, increasingly violent weather patterns and melting ice caps.

Stem Cell Research

A second issue that has long been in the news is stem cells. Stem cells reached such fame due to their ability to transform themselves into any cell in the body with the correct inducements. A stem cell could become a lung cell, heart cell or any other needed cell. Originally, these were only able to be obtained and manipulated if they were embryonic stem cells, namely, blastocyst cells. A blastocyst is a small ball of approximately 70-100 cells only four to five days old that eventually grow large enough to create the fetus. Since embryos are constantly growing, forming new organs and developing, they were thought to be the best and only source for these cells.

While President Bush has restricted embryonic stem cell research, Obama would not. He would reverse these restrictions and open the door for increased research and development. Many scientists and people afflicted with incurable diseases see these stem cells as a cure, a way to replace organs or cells that may be dysfunctional with something that is healthy. If one considers only the number of patients awaiting heart transplants, for example, the anticipation of the day when organs can be grown in the laboratory becomes palpable. Others, however, see the increased acceptance of scientific research with embryonic cells as a doorway to disaster for the unborn. Since this area is so new, many worry that scientists might create embryos in the lab only to destroy them for research, all in the name of science.

Although McCain voted for embryonic stem cell research, he now seems to hope to avoid this moral dilemma by avoiding embryonic stem cells in favor of adult or induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. While some believe embryonic cells are the only way to move ahead, adult and iPS cells have shown increasing promise in the last few years.

Adult stem cells are found in any adult tissue. Skin, for example, is made of adult cells that are able to regenerate themselves. iPS cells also have the ability to turn into any type of cell. The benefit of cells of this nature is that, since they can be taken from a patient and used to create a new, healthy organ, there is no risk of rejection; the body recognizes the cells of the organ. Another benefit is that an embryo does not need to be created or destroyed when using adult or iPS cells.

So far, adult stem cells have been used to treat leukemia and other cancers. According to the September 25 issue of Nature, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is looking to propel this technology forward by introducing a program to loan money to private biotechnology companies wishing to create and advance treatments possible with stem cells. Price Waterhouse Coopers, a global accounting firm, has estimated CIRM could make $100 million by 2018 if it provides loans of $700 million. Since CIRM’s establishment in 2004, it has already loaned $614 million in grants to support research of this kind.

The Vice Presidential Candidates

As for the vice presidential nominees, interestingly, neither Senator Joe Biden nor Governor Sarah Palin believe in abortion, yet Biden supports it while Palin believes it should only be allowed if the mother is endangered. They are also on opposite sides when it comes to embryonic stem cell research: Biden is for it, and Palin is not. They differ on the question of if intelligent design should be taught in the classroom. Biden said on Bill Maher’s talk show, “I refuse to believe the majority of people believe this malarkey,” while Palin said in 2006, “healthy debate is…important.”

Regardless of the similarities and differences between the candidates, however, the real question is if any policy will be passed at all, considering Democrats currently hold a slight majority in the Senate, and one-third of the Senate seats are up for election in November. Whatever the outcome, it will be significant for any policy the next president hopes to push through.

1 comment to McCain, Obama and the Future of Science

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