2008 US Presidential Candidates' Positions on Biological Technologies

Biological technologies constitute a rapidly growing portion of the US economy.  When you add together drugs, plants, and industrial products, genetically modified organisms now contribute about $130 billion, or ~1%, to the US Gross Domestic Product, with sector revenues growing at 15-20% per year.

Given our reliance on new biological technologies to provide innovations in health care, food production, biofuels, materials, and myriad other areas, the policy preferences of the next President will have a profound impact on the future of the bio-economy.  What follows is a non-partisan, though highly biased (in favor of biological technologies), look at the positions that are easily accessible on the web.

Unfortunately, the candidate with the best explicit proposals just dropped out.  Science and technology receive far too little attention from the two supposed nominees, and neither have agreed to participate in a science-only debate, such as the one proposed by ScienceDebate2008.

Where do they stand?

Senator McCain's campaign web site contains very little in the way of specifics about the role of science and technology in driving the economy.  Here is his "Issues" page.  Spread through the sections on Healthcare, Climate Change, and the Space Program, there are brief mentions of the need to provide funding for innovation, and to keep regulation minimal.  But no specific policy proposals.  The AAAS "Candidates Compared" page on McCain has substantially more detail his positions than his actual web site, but it is still pretty minimal if you are looking for a guide to his eventual policy positions.  All in all, quite disheartening.

Grade in Biological Technologies: C, but only with today's rampant grade inflation.

Senator Obama's Technology page has improved a bit since the last time I checked it out.  Previously, based on the text, "technology" was synonymous with communications and the Internet.  Now, in addition to a broadly worded proposals on communications tech and education, the Senator now has a few paragraphs addressing funding for technologies to mitigate climate change and reforming immigration and the patent system.  On the Healthcare page, he expresses his enthusiasm for "Advancing the Biomedical Research Field" and promises to increase funding.  Hurrah.  At the bottom of the Healthcare and Environment pages there are reasonably detailed policy summaries available as PDFs.

Grade in Biological Technologies: B, but only because based on the language in the policy summaries I can imagine he is willing to listen.

Alas, the policy positions relevant to biological technologies of the lately departed (from the race) Senator Clinton are much more detailed and coherent than the two putative nominees.  The most specific proposal for biological technologies in the Clinton "Innovation Agenda" is this (even though it substantially underestimates the contribution to the US economy):

Increase investment in the non-health applications of biotechnology in order to fuel 21st century industry.The NIH dominates federal investments in biology and the life sciences, and there are only a few programs exploring non-health applications of biotech. And although biotechnology is a $50 billion industry, it is still in its infancy-and that is particularly true where the non-health applications are concerned. An example of non-health biotech is the creation of bacteria that can remove toxins from the environment, such as heavy metals or radioactive contaminants. Insights from biotechnology can accelerate growth in a large number of other fields-not unlike the way 20th century developments in the chemicals industry drove growth in oil and gas refining, pulp and paper, building materials, and pharmaceuticals. The NIH will have to work with other agencies to explore these non-health applications.

It is true that in this quotation nowhere present are the words "metabolic engineering", "synthetic biology", or "metagenomics", but in my reading of the text those fields are how we get to meaningful results from "non-health applications".

The Agenda also calls for, "Requiring that federal research agencies set aside at least 8% of their research budgets for discretionary funding of high-risk research."   This sounds great, and I am in favor of it, but I wonder if there are enough talented program managers out there to handle the load.

Finally, the Agenda calls for, "Increasing the NIH budget by 50% over 5 years and aim to double it over 10 years."  While I would like to cheer for this, the NIH has not been the paragon of innovation over the last couple of decades, with the vast majority of funding going to established investigators rather than young people.  Even with an increase in funding, I don't see the NIH investing in synthetic biology any time soon.

Grade in Biological Technologies: A, and head of the class, but not "+" because while she addressed many of the relevant I am afraid the Senator didn't use the actual key words on the checklist.  That's how you grade essays, after all.

But, of course, even if she is as much of a policy wonk as her husband, Senator Clinton did not write the essay.  Somebody else did, and we can only hope that Obama or McCain 1) immediately picks up whomever was responsible for Clinton's excellent policy positions, and 2) listens to that person...