By Tom Still

MADISON – As the presidential circus makes ready to move on to another town, Wisconsin primary voters may wonder if they’ve learned all that much about where the major candidates stand on the issues.

On science and technology, at least, there are some fundamental differences – as well as some striking similarities.

The similarities are important. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as Republican John McCain, support federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. There are some nuanced differences, of course, but all three believe it’s time for U.S. stem-cell researchers to compete on a level playing field with researchers in other nations.

All three candidates support granting more H-1B visas to skilled foreign workers who can help the U.S. science and technology workforce remain globally competitive.

All three candidates have mapped out proposals for transitioning from an oil-based economy to an economy powered by alternative energy sources.

All three candidates would make permanent existing federal tax breaks for research and development investments by U.S. industries.

And all three candidates appear at least open to the idea that expanded use of emissions-free nuclear power is one way to combat the rise in greenhouse gases.

The differences revolve around competing views of the power of the marketplace to bring about change, and the role of the federal government in setting educational priorities and standards that have historically rested with the states.

Clinton and Obama would dramatically increase federal investment in alternative energy research and development, also using the “stick” of federal goals and regulations to go along with the “stick” of subsidies. McCain supports more federal R&D around alternative energy strategies, as well, but makes a point of giving the marketplace a final say over which technologies will win and which will lose.

McCain is the strongest believer in the power of tax policy to influence tech-based development. In addition to making permanent the income tax cuts enacted by President Bush, McCain has often touted his opposition to Internet taxes and new taxes on cell phones.

Clinton and Obama have both talked about specific increases in federal funding for research and development, which has flattened (but not declined) in recent years. McCain has not laid out goals for spending increases by major federal agencies such as the National Institutes for Health and the National Science Foundation, but his voting record indicates he’s generally in favor of R&D investments. For example, McCain voted for the 2007 America COMPETES Act (H.R. 2272), which supported spending more on the NSF, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and other federal research agencies.

However, one of the most intriguing – and perhaps business-like – proposals comes from Obama, who has proposed creating a “chief technology officer” position to oversee technology issues managed by federal agencies. 

The differences between the Big Three may be sharpest on educating the next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. Clinton and Obama have laid out a series of proposals for how the federal government can reverse the slide in U.S. dominance, but McCain has stressed that education remains a matter for the states and local communities. School choice, charter schools and federal incentives for high-quality teaching and curriculum innovation top McCain’s list.

For those who have lamented the so-called “politicization of science” during the Bush years, either Clinton, Obama or McCain will offer a fresh start. For those voters who follow science and technology issues, however, the final call may rest on their own values about the relative roles of government and the private sector. That’s less a matter of reading the position papers than of sizing up competing philosophies.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.