Q: Does John McCain Hate Science?

A: Apparently, sadly…Yes

By way of background: over the last eight years of Republican power, of the George Bush administration’s misrule, science in America has come under attack in several ways. Among them:

1: Official denialism, censorship, government sanctioned lies and misrepresentations so thorough as to rise to the level of falsehood. See Seth Shulman’s account; Chris Mooney’s book; and anything from the wealth of reporting on climate change deceit, reproductive health nonsense, and the disastrous conflation of religious ideology with public health and HIV prevention world wide.

(Those last two links are to Elizabeth Parisi’s blog and just-about-available book, both titled The Wisdom of Whores. The book is at the top of a growing pile of well written books about crucial topics accreting on my desk. I’ll blog more about Elizabeth’s and several others over the next few weeks — important stuff here).

2. Going further in the same vein — when inconvenient results could not be suppressed, the Bush administration turned to a more direct solution, blocking further research that might yield ideologically unacceptable research. The lengths to which this “I Can’t Hear You” twitch can go can be seen in this 2005 decision to pull out of Agent Orange research in Vietnam.

3. Delegitimizing science through active public disdain. My bile will probably force a separate blog post on an issue I’ve already screamed about — but this quote from GOP Congressman John Duncan captures the theme pretty well:

Rep. John Duncan, a Tennessee Republican, said that it seems “rather elitist” that people with academic degrees in health think they know better than parents what type of sex education is appropriate. “I don’t think it’s something we should abandon,” he said of abstinence-only funding.

(Acute readers will notice the depressing similarity between Duncan’s statement and the one discussed here.)

John McCain has participated in his party’s and its leaders sins against reason. Examples range from his support for the same abstinence funding Congressman Duncan so eloquently defended, to his support for “teaching the controversy” (sic) thus admitting Intelligent Design (sic) into the classroom — but that’s not the key reason to think that his administration will be hostile to science (though such pandering does not inspire much hope, to be sure).

That is, McCain has been willing to go along to get along with the party — and nothing in his gas tax holiday idiocy suggests that he has the interest or willingness to think critically about technical questions, nor to listen to those who do.

But that said, the real test of McCain’s attitude towards science as a would-be President comes where it always does in government. That is to say:

Follow the money.

Here’s the last bit of background: our once dominant international lead in science and engineering training, basic education and research funding has suffered significantly over the last eight years.

To take the NSF as a proxy for science funding as a whole, the appropriation for FY 2002 (the first for which Bush II was responsible) was 4.789 billion dollars, while the current, FY 2008 number comes only to 6.06 billion — an increace of 1.217 billion nominal dollars or a cumulative increase of 25.4% over seven years. That is essentially flat when inflation is factored in, and the year over year number for 2007-2008 actually lags behind current inflation.

Other areas of government supported research fare even worse. You don’t want to be a DOE supported particle physicist right now — nor one trying to solve our energy dependence through fusion research.

So the question for would-be President McCain is: what will you do to reverse the current decline in funding for basic and applied science and engineering research?

The answer is nothing — or worse.

How do I know this, given the near complete lack of detailed science plans on the McCain ’08 policy page?

Because of this speech, delivered on April 14 and billed as a major address on his approach to the economy. He said…

I promise you, if I’m elected President, I won’t leave office without balancing the federal budget. And I won’t do it with smoke and mirrors.”

Then: “I won’t balance the budget by allowing the President’s income and investment tax cuts to expire. When we passed those tax cuts, we increased spending as well. That’s unacceptable … “

Next up, (in this speech delivered the next day): “I will also send to the Congress a middle-class tax cut — a complete phase-out of the Alternative Minimum Tax to save more than 25 million middle-class families more than 2,000 dollars every year.”

And finally (from McCain’s website) ” A greater military commitment now is necessary if we are to achieve long-term success in Iraq.”

Now for a simple exercise in counting on one’s fingers.

2007 budget authority for the Iraq conflict topped 133 billion (or more than 20 times NSF’s budget. (Put another way: we could double basic science spending in this country for what we spent for about 17 days of the conflict.)

McCain wants to spend more — not to mention the increase in the general military budget he also envisions.

Eliminating the AMT will cost the government an enormous sum — as much as 1.2 trillion dollars over the next decade.

Retaining the Bush tax cuts for the top 1 percent of American taxpayers eliminates the possibilty of recovering lost revenues or covering the cost of new spending commitments made elsewhere in the McCain “plan” (sic).

And finally, achieving a balanced budget means that McCain will have to find the cash to cover a deficit that in the first six months of FY 2008 alone is running over 311 billion dollars (very roughly 10 percent of the budget for the entire year).

One last detail: discretionary domestic spending in FY 2007 (the last year with comprehensive data) — everything from roads to midnight basketball to science but excluding defense and veterans spending — came to 522 billion dollars.

So to put all this stuff in one tightly wrapped package:

To deliver on his commitments on taxes, defense and fiscal responsiblity, John McCain would have to eliminate all discretionary spending — including the few tens of billions spent on science R & D.

There is, of course, no real world political calculation that would permit that to happen. But McCain’s priorities are very clear — trillions for defense; trillions more for tax cuts. For the rest, as he put it himself, “the best way to protect the tax cuts and balance the budget is to stop spending money on things that are not the business of government and on programs that have outlived their usefulness or were never useful to begin with.”

In that context, does anyone think that basic science, graduate student fellowships, young investigator grants and all the rest will survive at anything like current levels — much less with funding increases to catch up even to what has been lost to inflation over the last presidency?

This post has gone on too long.

Why so many words when I could simply have said, “It’s the arithmetic, stupid.” Whatever else John McCain would do as President, advancing the cause of science in America is not plausibly one of them.

I’ll leave it to the reader to dwell on the economic and national security consequences of such a choice

*For the record the most comprehensive study to date, performed under contract for the US Department of Health and Human Services, found that

The impact results from the four selected programs show no impacts on rates of sexual abstinence. About half of all study youth had remained abstinent at the time of the final follow-up survey, and program and control group youth had similar rates of sexual abstinence. Moreover, the average age at first sexual intercourse and the number of sexual partners were almost identical for program and control youth.

Image: Gustave Courbet, “The Wrestlers,” 1853. The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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13 Comments on “Q: Does John McCain Hate Science?”


  1. Let me tell you, since I grew up in John “Jimmy” Duncan’s district (when his daddy held the same seat in Congress), that that abstinence shit is really popular. And then the country music radio station comes out of station break, and everyone forgets about it till Sunday.

  2. turkeyfish Says:

    Its not completely true that John McCane doesn’t support science.

    He is a leading advocate of increased spending on military technology as can be seen in his efforts to shift the development of the US Air Force tanker fleet to the European Defence Agency.

    He is prepared to spend billions helping the Saudis and other Gulf States to develop their petroleum refining technologies.

    He is prepared to lower pollution standards and regulations in the US that will be a boon to those studying the epidemiology of deaths and disease do to broad spectrum of health issues associated with pollution.

  3. Bootlegger Says:

    I get so tired of the Republicans beating up the straw man, and getting away with it as though they made a valid point.
    No one has ever said that parents should not tell their kids to be abstinate. These data only demonstrate that government programs can’t make abstinance happen. Imagine that, the government can’t keep teens from having sex. You’d think the small-government right wingers would be all over supporting that.

  4. Middle of the Road Says:

    We have no real clear cut CLEAN choice this time around. They are ALL a bunch of untruthful elitists. It is truly a lose – lose situation.

  5. God Says:

    Of course McDreamy hates science. AND SO DO I!!!!

    http://stuffgodhates.wordpress.com/2008/04/30/15-science/


  6. We have no real clear cut CLEAN choice this time around.

    I have to question your eyesight, MotR. There has seldom in my lifetime been a choice this stark – and I first voted in 1976.


  7. […] — to recapitulate what I wrote here: this is why McCain is so singularly a bad prospective President for science, and hence, if you buy […]


  8. […] the top.  I wrote about McCain as a hazard to the national science enterprise a few months ago in this post.  Short form:  after eight years of a range of assaults on science from the Bush led GOP — […]


  9. […] Lots of people have by now pointed out that putting together McCain’s tax policy, his commitments to a balanced budget (though if you believe in that as a “commitment” I refer you to the fate of similar promises made by George W. Bush), and his support of military spending, there is nothing left– and I mean nothing — for most of the rest of what the government currently pays for. My version of this can be found here. […]


  10. […] Note: Another nice collection of information about McCain’s views on science was collected by Thomas Levenson in his post “Does John McCain Hate Science?”. […]


  11. […] to mention the problem that McCain’s budget priorities leave essentially no room for any non-defense discretionary spending, rendering all the promises […]


  12. […] established over eight years of Bush administration benign and malign neglect of science.  See this post for a brief review of the numbers behind that bleak […]


  13. […] of his mind” arguments that the Powell and Adelman endorsements emphasized.  See especially this post for what I mean, this, and this besides if you are a glutton for […]


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