Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Science and Technology, the Politics

So recently I've been reading articles from Discovery News and Ars Technica that have a lot to do with politics. Not surprising here in America; we're all being inundated with campaign coverage thanks to the elections in November. I could likely say a lot about my opinions on that coverage, and how much I'm fed up with campaign commercials that don't really affect my opinion or likely anyone else's. But that's not what I'm up to here today.

To begin with, for those of you who are as interested in science and technology as myself, take a look at ScienceDebate 2008, where the US Presidential candidates were asked fourteen very pertinent questions about where we're headed on actual issues. I was pointed this direction from Deep Sea News, a Discovery blog. The obvious questions are near the top of the list; energy, national security, climate change, education. These are positions that will be talked about much more widely, but which have clear scientific and technological ties. Its good to see the candidates actually talking about these, and I'm looking forward to the upcoming formal debates for more details. However, the items that I find more interesting are in more specific fields; ocean health, genetics and stem cell research, scientific integrity, basic research funding, and of course space. That the candidates had answers for these at all was somewhat encouraging; I'll get to which answers were more appealing in a moment. The best part about it is that the questions got me thinking about the topics, and how important so many of these things are. Like many people, I think I get lost in the news coverage, campaign commercials, and oft-repeated talking points like taxes, jobs, gas prices, and the like. Its always good to be reminded of other things that are important to me, like say the long-term future of the human race through space exploration.

My overall impression on the answers reinforced my opinions about the candidates. Barack Obama is intelligent, literate, and at the same time eloquent and somewhat inspiring. He references facts, states specific goals, and gets to the point while still being a good read. I don't agree with everything he has to say, which isn't surprising; he's a politician. In general, though, his policies jive more with my own views. John McCain, on the other hand, attempts eloquence but achieves long-winded pomposity, states goals that aren't very specific, and seems to back away from questions that are uncomfortable.

Lets do a quick comparison, on one of my own particular subjects of interest, space. Obama lays out the fact that our country needs to invest more into space exploration, and ties it to some of the other questions quite well, in just the first paragraph:
"As president, I will establish a robust and balanced civilian space program. Under my administration, NASA not only will inspire the world with both human and robotic space exploration, but also will again lead in confronting the challenges we face here on Earth, including global climate change, energy independence, and aeronautics research. In achieving this vision, I will reach out to include international partners and to engage the private sector to amplify NASA’s reach. I believe that a revitalized NASA can help America maintain its innovation edge and contribute to American economic growth. "
McCain's answer is four times as long as Obama's, but not because it has more content. As he's done elsewhere on other topics, he gives us a history lesson on the space program and how it affects us today. This would be great if he were teaching a class, or writing a book, but he's answering a question put to him by scientists. They know. When he does get to his bullet points, there's a theme:
"As President, I will --
• Ensure that space exploration is top priority and that the U.S. remains a leader;
• Commit to funding the NASA Constellation program to ensure it has the resources it needs to begin a new era of human space exploration.
• Review and explore all options to ensure U.S. access to space by minimizing the gap between the termination of the Space Shuttle and the availability of its replacement vehicle;
• Ensure the national space workforce is maintained and fully utilized; Complete construction of the ISS National Laboratory;
• Seek to maximize the research capability and commercialization possibilities of the ISS National Laboratory;
• Maintain infrastructure investments in Earth-monitoring satellites and support systems;
• Seek to maintain the nation's space infrastructure;
• Prevent wasteful earmarks from diverting precious resources from critical scientific research;
• and ensure adequate investments in aeronautics research."
The theme, as you may have noticed, is "maintain." I'm all for keeping what exists in good working order, but that's far from being enough. I want to see us push boundaries, not "maximize current capabilities."

There are plenty of additional items that I find interesting, but you can see for yourself. I'm normally not one to be incredibly political, but if you're able to affect this election (i.e. you're American), I urge you to learn about the candidates and the issues, and let yourself be heard. The third-party candidates aren't included here, but they're certainly worth watching as well.

From Ars Technica, I've been keeping an eye on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. Most recently, a number of groups have demanded to see the secret trade agreement, which may have wide-reaching effects on things from fake drugs to fair use. Ars Technica links their articles fairly extensively, so I suggest looking around, but here are some highlights:
  • The EU started talking about ACTA about a year ago, targeting things like "fake drugs, luxury rip-offs, and bogus cosmetics" along with digital distribution.
  • We can't really complain about it, since the negotiations are secret, so we don't know what its going to say. However, despite concerns about border guards searching your iPod for stolen music, the larger issues will be things like forcing ISPs to filter out "infringing content," and shut down the Internet access of "repeat infringers."
  • The RIAA submitted a wish list, including such things as ISP filtering and removal of the "safe harbor" provisions of the DMCA, when privacy rights groups have had no input at all.
The issues are of course worrisome for those of us who like to actually use the content we purchase, what little we're allowed here in America (backup a DVD? Watch a movie I own on DVD on my iPod? Its illegal, like more and more fair use). The treaty seems like it may be used as a back door around the actual voters, since these kinds of things would never get past the legislature; they've already tried and failed. One thing I'll have to research is if the candidates have expressed any views on intellectual property rights, fair use, etc. With the addition of things like the complaints about the DRM on Spore, it feels like we're gearing up for a major conflict between free-software, fair-use proponets and the microtransaction-driven mega-corps. I guess all we can do right now is stay informed and take what action we're allowed.

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