From Bench to Ringside: The Presidential Debate


Last night, Obama and McCain confronted each other in the final Presidential debate. A flagging economy and two wars have left little room in the two campaigns for discussion of science, policy, and human research. Yet last night’s debate touched on two themes: embryonic stem cell (hES) research, and biomedical research funding.

Obama accused McCain of opposing embryonic stem cell research. From what I can tell, McCain actually supported the use of embryonic tissue for research and opposed Bush’s ban and vetoes. But the logic of McCain’s attacks on Obama, of late, are that personal associations tell us something about who a person is and where they stand. And McCain pals around with embryo research opponents like his running mate.

Contrast the two candidates’ statements on hES research from Sciencedebate 2008– a group that invited McCain and Obama to declare positions on various science policy issues. McCain stated “While I support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, I believe clear lines should be drawn….”  The remainder of his response qualifies his support.  On his own website, McCain stops short of declaring support–or opposition– for hES research, and talks more about what he would oppose than what he would support.  Obama’s support is more full-throated at Sciencedebate 2008: “As president, I will lift the current administration’s ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines… embryonic stem cells remain the ‘gold standard,’ and studies of all types of stem cells should continue in parallel for the foreseeable future.”

Elsewhere at Sciencedebate 2008, Obama’s campaign singled out gene transfer in a statement on genetics: “As a result [of safety issues involving ‘gene therapy’], the NIH established the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee…. Until we are equipped to ascertain the safety of such methods, I will continue to support the activities and recommendations of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.” [Note: Harold Varmus chairs a science advisory committee for the Obama campaign. Varmus reorganized RAC when he was the director of the NIH under the Clinton administration]

What about research– specifically translational research?  Just as they do for Joe the plumber, both candidates support NIH research. According to a report in Science (“Scientists Strive for a Seat at the Table of Each Campaign,” Jeffrey Mervis, 26 Sept), Obama pledged to double the NIH budget in five years. Elsewhere, his campaign said 10 years. Maybe the latter figure is inflation adjusted? Obama’s statement on Science and Innovation singles out “rapid translation of medical research.”

I am not aware of any clear statements on translational research from McCain, though he favors greater funding for NIH, and based on his debate and website, he seems to have a soft spot for autism research. As on other issues, McCain is less willing to commit to a timetable on NIH budget doubling. (photo credit: Thomas Hawk, Wordle of McCain and Obama convention speeches, 2008)


    title = {From Bench to Ringside: The Presidential Debate},
    journal = {STREAM research},
    author = {Jonathan Kimmelman},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2008,
    month = oct,
    day = 16,
    url = {}


Jonathan Kimmelman. "From Bench to Ringside: The Presidential Debate" Web blog post. STREAM research. 16 Oct 2008. Web. 04 Mar 2024. <>


Jonathan Kimmelman. (2008, Oct 16). From Bench to Ringside: The Presidential Debate [Web log post]. Retrieved from


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