Commentary: Why 61 Nobel laureates endorsed Obama

  • 08 October 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Lawrence Krauss


THE financial crisis on Wall Street and in Washington DC is unlike any other, and it will have a lingering effect on the economy, the nation and the world. While it is vital to explore short-term fixes, including the massive $700 billion bailout that Congress was still fighting over as New Scientist went to press, we must also consider those factors that will improve the long-term health of the economy.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently pointed out, for example, that unlike booms and busts caused by railroads, the internet and so on, this latest credit crash leaves behind little of permanence because the boom was created without actually building anything.

Similarly, I have argued that one side benefit of the failure of large Wall Street firms is that bright young people, rather than being attracted by the lure of easy money in financial markets, may now consider careers in areas such as engineering or science, inventing and making discoveries to fuel our nation's economic engines in the future.

In this regard, it is telling that last month, as Barack Obama unveiled his comprehensive Science and Technology Policy, 61 Nobel laureates in science publicly endorsed his campaign for president. They stated: "We especially applaud his emphasis during the campaign on the power of science and technology to enhance our nation's competitiveness. In particular, we support the measures he plans to take - through new initiatives in education and training, expanded research funding, an unbiased process for obtaining scientific advice, and an appropriate balance of basic and applied research - to meet the nation's and the world's most urgent needs."

This is the highest number of Nobel laureates ever to endorse one candidate in particular, but the candidate they chose may seem surprising. Over the past half-century, Republican administrations have often invested more in science than Democratic ones. So why Obama over John McCain?

Early on, it seemed that McCain might change the direction of his party on science and technology, and mend the disconnect between the current administration and the scientific community. He spoke about the need to preserve scientific integrity, for example, and criticised Bush on this issue.

As the campaign has gone on, however, McCain seems to have backtracked on science issues, from the reversal of his initial stance against offshore oil drilling, to his waning support for stem cell research. His choice of Sarah Palin - a critic of the scientific consensus that human industrial activity is strongly related to global climate change, an advocate for teaching intelligent design alongside evolution, and an opponent of embryonic stem cell research - has not helped. These issues are not mentioned in the Nobel letter, though.

McCain, like Obama, was an ardent supporter of the America Competes Act, which proposed doubling government support of fundamental research in science and engineering to meet the nation's long-term economic needs. But in his response to questions from the Science Debate 2008 group, he avoided any specific promises, relying instead on vague and qualified statements of support.

In tough economic times, science is always an easy target. It has few direct constituents, who tend not to vote together on any single issue. But as studies by the National Academies have shown, support for research in science and technology over the past half-century has had a major influence on our standard of living. We should not endanger the nation's long-term economic health to deal with today's fiscal problems.

In tough economic times, science is always an easy target

Such a concern motivated the Nobel laureates to announce their preference for Obama. Whether their message will influence the rest of the electorate remains to be seen.

From issue 2677 of New Scientist magazine, 08 October 2008, page 5