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Science on the Stump

From guest blogger and EdWeek reporter Sean Cavanagh:

Barack Obama's presidential campaign brought out the brainpower this week in an attempt to sell the candidate as the one who would devote the most attention and resources to science education and innovation.

The Illinois Democrat arranged to have three Nobel Prize winners—Harold Varmus (who won in medicine), Peter Agre (chemistry), and Bob Horvitz (medicine)—speak on a conference call on Thursday with reporters about what he's dubbed his "science and innovation" agenda. The campaign also put forward a letter signed by 61 Nobel laureates in support of the senator's candidacy.

Obama released an 11-page document listing his science proposal to coincide with the event. Many of the ideas in there are things he's been talking about for some time. Many of them focus on increasing federal investment in scientific research by various agencies, and vowing to end what he sees as political interference in scientific study, on climate change and environmental issues.

But his plans also call for improving K-12 math and science teaching, through an expansion of scholarships for aspiring educators, and encouraging greater collaboration among federal agencies on "STEM" issuses. Many federal agencies sponsor programs in teacher training, though critics have complained that there's no way to judge whether those programs actually work.

A McCain staffer noted that the Arizona senator has offered several K-12 math and science proposals, including expanded financial incentives for teachers who agree to work in those subjects; and new support for online education math and science and Advanced Placement courses.

The scientists supporting Obama's proposals this week acknowledged that they carry a significant price tag, though they also say that spending is urgently needed. Congress' willingness to foot the bill for new science- and math-related programs is uncertain. Federal lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the passage of the America COMPETES Act last year, for instance, but many of the programs authorized in that legislation, including teacher training and curriculum support for K-12, haven't received funding yet. (And that budgetary tight-fistedness was evident long before the nation's economic woes appeared to become more dire.)

For a breakdown of the candidates' views on science issues, including some science education proposals, check out the answers they provided for "Science Debate 2008," a forum arranged by scientists, business leaders and others.

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