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US election: research and innovation on the sidelines, as healthcare and jobs top the agenda

It’s Super Tuesday already, but there has been barely a word about R&D in the US political campaign, despite the fact the scientific community is up in arms at the way the Trump administration has treated science.

Funding for scientific research and innovation has had little mention in the Democratic primary race, and then almost exclusively in the context of climate change and clean energy. Healthcare and jobs are by far the biggest things on voters’ minds, and therefore among the candidates, too. With the campaigns focusing on implementation of measures to address medical costs, job creation and improving infrastructure, R&D can only take a back seat.

That is unlikely to change with today’s Super Tuesday primary contests, the biggest single day of the campaign season with 14 states voting and 1,357 delegates, or about one-third of the total for this summer’s Democratic National Convention, up for grabs. The biggest prizes are California, with 415 delegates, Texas, 228, and North Carolina, 110.

Polls released on Sunday showed senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont leads in all three of those key states. A CBS News poll conducted by YouGov put Sanders at 31 per cent, Joe Biden second at 19 per cent; Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on 18 per cent ; billionaire Mike Bloomberg at 12 per cent; and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota 4 per cent.

Sanders’ advantage was wider in a poll in Texas, while his lead in North Carolina was narrow and within the margin of error. All the polls were conducted before Biden’s decisive win in South Carolina on Saturday.

Sanders is leading the delegate count after the first four state contests, according to the Associated Press. But the contestants are about to get mixed. Super Tuesday is the first time Michael Bloomberg will be on the ballot. Meanwhile, former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg dropped out, after a poor showing in South Carolina. And on Monday, Klobuchar also threw in the towel due to poor results.

Sanders doesn’t mention R&D in his signature Medicare for Al’ programme, but the proposal could nonetheless have an impact on medical research. As could his $16.3 trillion plan to address global warming, though as yet that too has very few specifics on research and innovation.

While 57 science professors and researchers publicly backed Sanders’ climate plan after Joe Biden charged that “not a single solitary scientist thinks it can work,” that kerfuffle wasn’t about research at all.

Science and research rank well below healthcare in the minds of Americans deciding who the Democratic nominee will be. Reducing healthcare costs was by far the top priority in a January survey of 1,000 people conducted by Zogby Analytics on behalf of Research America, being ticked by 71 per cent of respondents, above job creation/economic growth, with 57 per cent.

All the other choices, including supporting innovation in technology, and speeding medical progress, registered less than 50 per cent. Meanwhile, 42 per cent chose said fighting climate change should be a priority for candidates.

Bring back climate science

Sanders targets $2 trillion in spending toward higher education, but it is mostly for student debt forgiveness, not research or science.

Where science does get a mention is in the context of global warming. For example, while Klobuchar has no specific dollar amounts on the R&D proposals in her $2 trillion climate plan, one of her agenda items is, “End the Trump Administration’s censoring of climate science.’’

The scientific community would agree in a broad way.

“If you look at the current administration’s proposed budget for fiscal 2021, the cuts are deep and they’re serious and they’re going to harm scientific investment,” said Christine McEntee, director of the American Geophysical Union, an international scientific association with 60,000 members. “From our viewpoint, it’s very critical that every candidate, Republican, Democrat, at all levels of government, be supporters of funding investment in science,’’ McEntee said. “We want all candidates, and those who are already elected, to recognise the value of research.’’

While detailed on what initiatives he plans, Bloomberg is less clear on how much funding will go to each. The former New York mayor has a strong record of fighting global warming and gives an overall figure of quadrupling federal investment in clean-energy R&D, to $25 billion a year. This would include regional growth hubs to foster innovation.

Meanwhile, Biden pledges “historic investment” in clean energy research, proposing $400 billion over the next decade in R&D and collaboration between universities and the private sector. He also proposes to establish ARPA-C, an Advanced Research Projects Agency focused on climate to target game changing technologies in clean energy, including carbon capture, use and storage.

But overall, the global warming debate among the Democratic candidates, “is more focused on instruments for the adoption of clean technologies, like standards and incentives for clean energy, rather than really stimulating the research and development,’’ said Reinhilde Veugelers, a senior fellow at Bruegel in Brussels and a professor at KU Leuven.

Veugelers said the debate on healthcare could have “a big impact” on medical research. “On healthcare reform, if you push too far in cutting costs, of course it will help with affordability, but it will have its impact on the incentives for doing research,’’ she said.

Bernie Sanders’ take on science and research

Bernie SandersThere are few specifics in Sanders’s $16.3 trillion climate plan, which would declare climate change a national emergency and seek to reach 100 per cent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by 2030 and complete decarbonisation by 2050. Sanders would rejoin the Paris agreement and reassert US leadership in the international fight against global warming, partly through providing $200 billion to the Green Climate Fund.

Despite not committing in funding terms, Sanders does give verbal backing for research and innovation. “What we lack is long-term federal commitment to our scientists and engineers in the sustainable energy sector to accelerate innovation in both energy production and storage,” the Sanders campaign says in its climate plan. https://berniesanders.com/en/issues/green-new-deal/

Sanders also pledges to “reassert U.S. leadership in research and engineering by marshalling resources across the federal government and institutions of higher education, including the National Academy of Engineering and National Science Foundation.”


What Joe Biden says about science and research  

Joe BidenClean energy research is part of Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. He proposes investing $400 billion over 10 years in research and collaboration between universities and the private sector. The plan includes a programme of partnerships with local universities and national labs, “for local access to the most relevant science, data, information, tools, and training.” Biden’s climate plan also envisages building electric car charging stations, expanding high-speed rail, reducing emissions from buildings and creating an enforcement mechanism such as a fee or tax to reduce emissions. He would also recommit the US to the Paris Agreementhttps://joebiden.com/climate/

Biden’s proposed ARPA-C will focus on, among other things:
– small modular nuclear reactors with reduced construction costs;
– refrigeration and air conditioning using refrigerants with no global warming potential;
– zero net energy buildings at zero net cost;
– using renewables to produce carbon-free hydrogen at the same cost as that from shale gas;
– decarbonising industrial heat needed to make steel, concrete and chemicals;
– decarbonising the food and agriculture sector;
– carbon capture and storage.

Mike Bloomberg on science and research 

Mike BloombergMike Bloomberg says he will increase federal investment in clean energy R&D fourfold to at least $25 billion a year, prioritising storage and grid technologies, “as well as sectors of the economy that are hardest to decarbonise.” There are few details on how the funding will be allocated. He pledges to end subsidies and close tax loopholes for coal, oil and gas.

Bloomberg would also prioritise research including geothermal power, offshore wind, energy storage, carbon capture usage and storage for gas, and advanced nuclear-reactor designs. He would set up 30 regional growth hubs to focus on commercialization of research in areas such as public health, hydrogen power, green technology and sustainable agriculture.

The Bloomberg campaign also pledges to invest in world-class STEM education, promote innovation ecosystems around the country, implement a more efficient immigration policy that welcomes talent from all over the world and increase research funding so that the US maintains its advantages in next generation technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Bloomberg says he will immediately rejoin the Paris agreement, reassert international leadership and rally other countries to curb climate change. Global warming will be a priority of US foreign policy.


Elizabeth Warren’s view of science and research 

Elizabeth WarrenAs part of her $3 trillion plan to achieve zero net emissions by 2030, Warren proposes $400 billion in funding over 10 years for clean energy research and development. The plan includes the creation of a National Institutes of Clean Energy, modelled on the National Institutes of Health, and a commitment of $100 billion to support the export of US clean energy products.

Warren would prioritise research, “that can be commercialised to help close the gap in hard-to-decarbonize sectors, such as aviation and shipping, and in areas otherwise underrepresented in the existing R&D portfolio, like long-duration grid storage. The plan cites specifically existing R&D programmes with a strong track record of translating innovation into production, listing the Energy Department’s ARPA-E program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, the Manufacturing USA network, the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers and Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers, the Agriculture Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant programme at the Department of Agriculture, and the Small Business Innovation Research and Technology Transfer programmes.

Warren insists that federal R&D investments be spread across every region and all new federal research funding should require resulting production to take place in the U.S. “We can ensure our R&D investments spur economic development in every part of the country, not just the coasts, by sending money to consortiums of land grant universities, to targets situated in rural areas, and to areas that have seen the worst job losses in recent years.”