US election: Biden makes big promises on medical research, as field of Democrat candidates narrows

02 Mar 2020 | International News

After coming from behind to take 9 of 14 states on Super Tuesday, former vice president pledges ‘billions of dollars’ for cancer and brain diseases

Democratic candidates during a debate on NBC on 20 February. Photo: Captured from live NBC broadcast

After a strong showing on Super Tuesday cemented his position as one of the front-runners, former vice president Joe Biden took to the stage to pledge “billions of dollars” to find cures for cancer and other diseases.

“We’ll spend billions of dollars to find, I promise you, cures for cancer, Alzheimer's and diabetes,” Biden said in a victory speech late Tuesday in Los Angeles, after his dominating performance in Tuesday’s voting saw him catch senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in terms of delegates.

Super Tuesday was the biggest single day of the campaign season, with 14 states voting and 1,357 delegates up for grabs – about one-third of the total for this summer’s Democratic National Convention. Sanders was ahead in California, the biggest prize of the day with 415 delegates; but Biden claimed victory in Texas and across the South.

The results appear to narrow the contest to a two-man race, with senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts well behind and billionaire Michael Bloomberg announcing he is dropping out. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the contest before the voting started on Tuesday.

For now, details of Biden’s research funding intentions haven’t been specified, with his campaign’s website saying proposals “to tackle some of our greatest public health challenges’’ are to be issued in “the coming months.”

The subject of cancer research is close to Biden’s heart. In 2017 he launched the Biden Cancer Initiative, to boost research in the field, but it suspended operations last summer after he launched his presidential bid.

Until Biden’s victory speech, there had been barely a word about R&D in the US political campaign, despite the fact the scientific community is up in arms at the way the Trump administration has treated science. 

What little mention there has been in the Democratic primary race was almost exclusively in the context of climate change and clean energy.

Healthcare and jobs are by far the biggest things on voters’ minds, and was therefore uppermost for the candidates, too. With the campaigns focusing on implementation of measures to address medical costs, job creation and improving infrastructure, R&D has take a back seat.

Sanders doesn’t mention R&D in his signature Medicare for All programme, but the proposal could nonetheless have an impact on medical research. As could his $16.3 trillion plan to address global warming, though as yet that too has very few specifics on research and innovation.

While 57 science professors and researchers publicly backed Sanders’ climate plan after Joe Biden charged that “not a single solitary scientist thinks it can work,” that kerfuffle wasn’t about research at all.

Science and research rank well below healthcare in the minds of Americans deciding who the Democratic nominee will be. Reducing healthcare costs was by far the top priority in a January survey of 1,000 people conducted by Zogby Analytics on behalf of Research America, being ticked by 71 per cent of respondents, above job creation/economic growth, with 57 per cent.

All the other choices, including supporting innovation in technology, and speeding medical progress, registered less than 50 per cent. Meanwhile, 42 per cent said fighting climate change should be a priority for candidates.

Bring back climate science

Sanders targets $2 trillion in spending toward higher education, but it is mostly for student debt forgiveness, not research or science.

Where science does get a mention is in the context of global warming. For example, before she dropped out, Klobuchar had as one of her agenda items: “End the Trump Administration’s censoring of climate science.’’

The scientific community would agree in a broad way.

“If you look at the current administration’s proposed budget for fiscal 2021, the cuts are deep and they’re serious and they’re going to harm scientific investment,” said Christine McEntee, director of the American Geophysical Union, an international scientific association with 60,000 members. “From our viewpoint, it’s very critical that every candidate, Republican, Democrat, at all levels of government, be supporters of funding investment in science,’’ McEntee said. “We want all candidates, and those who are already elected, to recognise the value of research.’’

While detailed on what initiatives he plans, Bloomberg is less clear on how much funding will go to each. The former New York mayor has a strong record of fighting global warming and gives an overall figure of quadrupling federal investment in clean-energy R&D, to $25 billion a year. This would include regional growth hubs to foster innovation.

Meanwhile, Biden pledges “historic investment” in clean energy research, proposing $400 billion over the next decade in R&D and collaboration between universities and the private sector. He also proposes to establish ARPA-C, an Advanced Research Projects Agency focused on climate to target game changing technologies in clean energy, including carbon capture, use and storage.

But overall, the global warming debate among the Democratic candidates “is more focused on instruments for the adoption of clean technologies, like standards and incentives for clean energy, rather than really stimulating the research and development,’’ said Reinhilde Veugelers, a senior fellow at Bruegel in Brussels and a professor at KU Leuven.

Veugelers said the debate on healthcare could have “a big impact” on medical research. “On healthcare reform, if you push too far in cutting costs, of course it will help with affordability, but it will have its impact on the incentives for doing research,’’ she said.

Bernie Sanders’ take on science and research

Bernie SandersThere are few specifics in Sanders’s $16.3 trillion climate plan, which would declare climate change a national emergency and seek to reach 100 per cent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by 2030 and complete decarbonisation by 2050. Sanders would rejoin the Paris agreement and reassert US leadership in the international fight against global warming, partly through providing $200 billion to the Green Climate Fund.

Despite not committing in funding terms, Sanders does give verbal backing for research and innovation. “What we lack is long-term federal commitment to our scientists and engineers in the sustainable energy sector to accelerate innovation in both energy production and storage,” the Sanders campaign says in its climate plan.

Sanders also pledges to “reassert U.S. leadership in research and engineering by marshalling resources across the federal government and institutions of higher education, including the National Academy of Engineering and National Science Foundation.”

What Joe Biden says about science and research  

Joe BidenClean energy research is part of Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. He proposes investing $400 billion over 10 years in research and collaboration between universities and the private sector. The plan includes a programme of partnerships with local universities and national labs, “for local access to the most relevant science, data, information, tools, and training.” Biden’s climate plan also envisages building electric car charging stations, expanding high-speed rail, reducing emissions from buildings and creating an enforcement mechanism such as a fee or tax to reduce emissions. He would also recommit the US to the Paris Agreement.

Biden’s proposed ARPA-C will focus on, among other things:
- small modular nuclear reactors with reduced construction costs;
- refrigeration and air conditioning using refrigerants with no global warming potential;
- zero net energy buildings at zero net cost;
- using renewables to produce carbon-free hydrogen at the same cost as that from shale gas;
- decarbonising industrial heat needed to make steel, concrete and chemicals;
- decarbonising the food and agriculture sector;
- carbon capture and storage.

Elizabeth Warren’s view of science and research 

Elizabeth WarrenAs part of her $3 trillion plan to achieve zero net emissions by 2030, Warren proposes $400 billion in funding over 10 years for clean energy research and development. The plan includes the creation of a National Institutes of Clean Energy, modelled on the National Institutes of Health, and a commitment of $100 billion to support the export of US clean energy products.

Warren would prioritise research, “that can be commercialised to help close the gap in hard-to-decarbonize sectors, such as aviation and shipping, and in areas otherwise underrepresented in the existing R&D portfolio, like long-duration grid storage. The plan cites specifically existing R&D programmes with a strong track record of translating innovation into production, listing the Energy Department’s ARPA-E program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, the Manufacturing USA network, the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers and Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers, the Agriculture Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant programme at the Department of Agriculture, and the Small Business Innovation Research and Technology Transfer programmes.

Warren insists that federal R&D investments be spread across every region and all new federal research funding should require resulting production to take place in the U.S. “We can ensure our R&D investments spur economic development in every part of the country, not just the coasts, by sending money to consortiums of land grant universities, to targets situated in rural areas, and to areas that have seen the worst job losses in recent years.”


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