Election to benefit scientific research

Regardless of which presidential candidate comes out on top next Tuesday, scientific research will have strong support from the White House come January, Ivan Semeniuk, the U.S. bureau chief for the New Scientist magazine, said Tuesday.

At a lecture sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, Semeniuk argued that research on topics such as stem cells, alternative energy sources and space exploration have been neglected during the current administration and will need to be revitalized under the next president. Still, given the current economic downturn, even a president dedicated to increasing funding for research may have trouble securing larger budget allocations, he said.

New Scientist bureau chief Semeniuk hopes the next president will increase research funding.
Nicholas Bayless
New Scientist bureau chief Semeniuk hopes the next president will increase research funding.

“Neither of the candidates is Bush, so the antagonism toward the sciences will be over,” Semeniuk said. “But the next president will have a hard time boosting research funding.”

After a uptick in funding for science during the 1950s, Semeniuk said, government allocations have stagnated despite a recent increase in popular interest in the sciences.

The portion of the federal non-defense discretionary spending budget devoted to the sciences has remained steady at about 10 to 12 percent for the past 30 years, he said.

Given the unfavorable economic climate, the next president will face a tight budget, making it harder to justify funding research projects — such as sending another man to the moon by 2020 — that may not yield tangible results during his presidency, he said.

Still, either administration will be an improvement over the current one, the Canadian-born Semeniuk said, adding that a perception that the Bush administration is “anti-science” exists in many parts of the world.

To help correct this perception, the next president should ensure that he has a high-level official advising him on scientific matters, he said.

“At the moment, there’s a concern that the U.S. government doesn’t have the expertise throughout the executive branch to deal with all of the critical issues that hinge on science and technology,” Semeniuk said. “So that means the appointment process will be very important. A big repair job is ahead.”

Physics Department Chair Meg Urry, one of eight people at the talk, said she appreciated Semeniuk’s illustration of how the rest of the world sees the United States as both a leader and a threat.

The seven other audience members declined to comment for this article.

Before becoming a journalist, Semeniuk served as the resident astronomy expert at the Ontario Science Centre. He was recently nominated for a Gemini award for excellence in Canada’s English-language television for his documentary “Hubble’s Canvas.”

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