World and Nation

Presidential Rivals’ Visions Differ on Sparking Innovation

For decades, the United States dominated the technological revolution sweeping the globe. The nation’s science and engineering skills produced vast gains in productivity and wealth, powered its military and made it the de facto world leader.

Today, the dominance is eroding. In 2002, the nation’s high-technology balance of trade went south, and it never came back. By 2007, the annual gap between high-tech exports and imports had grown to $53 billion. The gap this year is expected to be the largest ever — approaching $60 billion.

Both presidential candidates, in their careers and in their campaigns, have made detailed arguments for how the nation should deal with technology rivals, sharpen its competitive edge and improve what experts call its “ecology of innovation.”

Yet their visions are strikingly different. They diverge mainly on the appropriate role for the federal government in education, in spending on research, and in building, maintaining and regulating the complex infrastructure on which innovation depends. The visions both face tough questions on their viability amid the nation’s deepening financial crisis.

Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, seeks to encourage innovation by cutting corporate taxes and ending what he calls “burdensome regulations” that he says inhibit corporate investment. But McCain has also repeatedly gone up against business if he sees a conflict with national security, for instance, in seeking to limit sensitive exports.

In Sen. Barack Obama’s view, the United States must compete far more effectively against an array of international rivals who are growing more technically adept. Obama, the Democratic nominee, looks to the federal government to finance science, math and engineering education and the kind of basic research that can produce valuable industrial spinoffs.

The personal styles of the candidates also contrast. McCain says his leadership of the Senate commerce committee has versed him in technology issues, but he also jokes about his ignorance of personal computers and e-mail. Obama, an avid BlackBerry user, commenced an aggressive drive for campaign donations over the Internet.

Obama embraces the theory of evolution and argues that the teaching of intelligent design and other creationist ideas “cloud” a student’s understanding of science. While McCain says he personally believes in evolution, he has also said that children should be taught “all points of view.”

McCain has written five books, starting in 1999, but none discuss in any detail how the nation might respond to technical rivals — a central theme of Obama’s second book, published in 2006. Obama posted a detailed set of technology proposals on his Web site late last year; McCain did so in recent months.

It remains to be seen how the candidates would pay for their proposals.

At the request of The New York Times, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, estimated the annual costs of the plans and put Obama’s at $85.6 billion and McCain’s at $78.8 billion, excluding his proposed reductions in corporate taxes.