WASHINGTON — Call it the political revenge of the nerds.
For nearly eight years, many mainstream scientists have been frustrated with the Bush administration. They've claimed that science has been censored, ignored and politicized on issues from global warming to stem cells to evolution. Even the presidential science adviser was booted from the White House and forced to set up office down the street.
Both presidential candidates – Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama – offer policies further from the president than they are from each other. They advocate mandatory caps on the main global warming gas and favor federal funding for embryonic stem cell research – positions opposite the Bush administration.
Obama and McCain promise to seek, not censor, government science advice and to restore the White House science adviser's office.
The differences between them are more notable in the nuances of policy than in the broad brush of campaigns. Both have promised more money for scientific research, though the ongoing financial crisis may make that tough.
One science spending difference managed to creep into the second presidential debate, however. McCain ridiculed an unsuccessful Obama earmark attempt to get "$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Ill. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?'' McCain asked.
It turns out that wasn't just an old-fashioned overhead slide viewer but a replacement for the 38-year-old star-and-planet projector in the Sky Theater at the Adler Planetarium, the first planetarium in the Western Hemisphere and located in Obama's home state.
For his part, Obama put spending for energy research ahead of health care and entitlement reform when asked in the debate to set priorities. He's called for an investment of $15 billion a year over 10 years.
"While on the surface it may look like they say the same thing ... when it comes to energy issues, you do get a little difference,'' said Henry Lambright, Syracuse University science and public policy professor.
The candidates touch on the same alternatives to foreign oil, but McCain pushes heavily on domestic oil drilling and nuclear power; Obama emphasizes renewable energy such as wind and solar.
Both men propose a dramatic reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide – the chief man-made greenhouse gas – but their long-term goals are slightly different. Obama wants an 80 percent reduction by 2050. McCain, who wants a 60 percent cap, was an early leader in proposing mandatory emissions caps, bucking his party and his president.
Both candidates favor President Bush's plan to send astronauts back to the moon. But both disagree with the plan to retire the space shuttle in 2010, relying on the Russians for five years to send Americans into orbit. After once advocating the diversion of NASA money for education, Obama has been as vocal for space spending as McCain. Space is a big industry in Florida, a key battleground state.
Granger Morgan, head of energy and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University said, "Far more critical is to understand how the two candidates use science and technology advice.''
And he and others say either man would be an improvement over Bush.
"They both appear to have areas where they've had terrific track records, and we think that many of the issues will be handled in a way that tracks more closely to the science,'' said Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In past presidential campaigns, science advocates generally have been the wallflowers of political debate. This year, they have tried to get on the dance floor. More than 175 science organizations and universities called for a debate on science issues and got a 14-question survey answered by both candidates.
A number of prominent scientists have flocked toward Obama. In September, his campaign touted the support of 61 winners of Nobel science or medicine prizes, held a media conference call on science policy and sent a speaker to one of the nation's biggest science conferences in February. The McCain campaign did not do those things nor has it promoted Nobel-winning supporters.
McCain has, in a few cases, taken positions that are at odds with mainstream scientists. In a February town hall meeting in Texas, he declared "there's strong evidence'' that a mercury-based preservative in vaccines is linked to the increase in U.S. autism cases, according to ABC News.
The Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and medical organizations say there is no such evidence. Since 2002, the preservative has been removed from shots recommended for young children, except for some flu shots. Fielding a similar question in April, Obama said, "The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.''
McCain in 2005 also told a Tucson newspaper that he favors teaching the concept of intelligent design alongside evolution in schools. Intelligent design is the view that life is too complex to have developed through evolution alone, implying that a higher power must have had a hand in creation. In later interviews, McCain has sometimes distanced himself from that comment; last July he told the New York Times these issues are up to local school boards. While evangelical conservatives and President Bush laud the teaching of intelligent design, scientists, such as Leshner, say it would "undermine science education.''
The McCain campaign did not respond to several requests by The Associated Press for comment on science issues. The campaign also did not respond to 10 specific questions, including those about intelligent design and childhood vaccines and autism.
Obama's science advisers, such as former National Institutes of Health director Harold Varmus, mostly paint differences between Obama and President Bush, not McCain. Varmus criticized what he called "the Bush administration's overall war on science.''
Jack Marburger, Bush's science adviser, says the campaigns have not been fair about the president's leadership on climate change. As for the debate over embryonic stem cells, he called it "an ethical issue, not a science policy.''
"We've got a lot of money on the table (for science spending). The question is how to spend it,'' Marburger said. "That is going to be the question for the next administration. That is going to be tough.''