Extreme tech positions of the presidential candidates

How some of the candidates see the government's role in science and tech

Republican candidates on debate stage
Jason Bahr/CNBC

This is an election where extreme positions have become the norm, and the implications for science and technology may be huge.

In some cases, the Republican and Democratic candidates have stated positions with clarity. But many of ideas are still vague, roughly sketched out and incomplete.

These emerging proposals, the ones with the most impact on technology, deserve attention. The surviving candidates are certain to refine them in the months ahead. But here's a look at some tech implications of the 2016 contest.

Who spells trouble for supercomputers?

The most aggressive federal spending reduction proposal may belong to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Cruz wants to "eliminate" five major federal departments, including some of the government's most technology intensive: The Internal Revenue Service and the Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development.

Cruz's radical overhaul of government may also affect federal IT spending, now at about $80 billion, as staffing levels are reduced. If elected, Cruz would only "authorize the hiring of a maximum ratio of one person for every three who leave." When government cuts hiring, it may in turn increase its use of private sector outsourced services.

But those most worried about Cruz's plan may be the scientists and engineers who use supercomputers. Affected as well are the small universe of supercomputing vendors, namely: IBM, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, Dell and Cray.

ted cruz outsourcing Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

The Energy Deptartment, which Cruz would eliminate or "wind down," funds the U.S.'s largest supercomputers, $100 million-plus systems that are beyond the reach of most private corporations. Its Titan system, a Cray XK7, is the second most powerful supercomputer in the world, at nearly 18 petaflops. China's Tianhe-2, is number one at nearly 34 petaflops.

The U.S. supercomputers are housed at the federal government's four national laboratories, where scientists conduct research on nearly every field of human endeavor. These systems are also made available to businesses to conduct research.

Who wants to help NASA?

Some of the leading Republican candidates have been gushing in their support for NASA. This may be great for NASA, but part of its mission is earth science, and it's in that area that the space agency is facing problems.

NASA uses its satellites and research capabilities to conduct extensive work on climate change. It was a NASA scientist, James Hansen, who famously warned Congress in 1988 about how a buildup of carbon dioxide was warming the planet. NASA faces friction from congressional Republicans who want to scale back the agency's climate change research.

The person who offers the best clue about the GOP direction on NASA is U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who heads the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Smith isn't running for president, but he has accused the Obama administration of starving NASA's exploration programs to fund a "partisan environmental agenda," meaning climate change. Cruz is of a similar mind.

What is clear is that space exploration would have a future under a Republican administration. That's not to the exclusion of the Democrats, but the GOP candidates have been particularly colorful in their comments about NASA.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush believes the idea of establishing a moon colony is "pretty cool."

"What's wrong about having big, lofty aspirational goals?" said Bush, at a recent campaign stop. "The benefits of this are far more than people realize."

marco rubio official portrait 112th congress Marco Rubio office

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.)

Dr. Ben Carson, the retired surgeon and presidential hopeful, said that in his administration, NASA would become bigger.

"A lot of inventions came out of NASA, and we're losing our edge" said Carson, in this video interview. "We have to control space, because if we let the Chinese and the Russians control it, we're toast."

When the New Horizons spacecraft sent back its Pluto photos, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), said, in a statement, that "space exploration is and has always been an important venture for our country. It opens the door for an unparalleled level of innovation, research and understanding."

This Republican field, in the main, is not advocating strong action on climate change. A Republican president may well expand the space exploration capabilities of NASA, but would shift its earth science research funding to space exploration.

Who wants to boost defense-related tech spending the most?

Most of the GOP candidates favor a strong defense, and that may be a plus for technology spending.

Among the Republican candidates, Rubio may have the most detailed , if not the most extreme defense plan.

Rubio would, for instance, would increase the Navy from 272 to 323 ships, a nearly 20% gain. He would build at least two attack submarines each year, as well as improve intelligence and surveillance spending. He wants the Defense Department to develop "a more technologically agile and adaptable workforce that can leverage technological evolution."

Military research spending has broadly helped the private sector. The DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), for instance, had a major role in the development of GPS and the Internet.

The question that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) put to Rubio in the most recent Republican debate was: "How is it conservative to add a trillion dollars in military expenditures?" Responded Rubio: "We can't even have an economy if we're not safe."

Who has the strongest position on the H-1B visa?

Among Democratic and Republican candidates, Donald Trump, the billionaire developer, has developed the most detailed plan on the H-1B visa. He is philosophically in alignment with Senate lawmakers, including Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) who want to curb the program.

Trump relies heavily on raising the prevailing wage to make it more expensive to use visa workers, as well as requiring companies to hire U.S. workers first.

bernie sanders Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has been tough on the H-1B visa program but has not produced many specifics about how he might address this issue.

The candidate positions on the H-1B visa appear to be works in progress. Cruz, for instance, recently proposed suspending the issuing of new H-1B visas for six months while the program is studied for abuse. This call for a suspension is new for him, and reveals a change in tone from his prior position.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, has previously supported an increase in the visa cap, although she hasn't said much about it in recent months.

Climate change divisions and impact on research

One technology-related issue with clear political distinction is climate change. President Obama's administration made clean energy technology research a priority, but federal research and development spending has been declining overall.

In 2013, the government conducted nearly $50 billion in R&D, but that was a decrease of $1.5 billion between 2012 and 2013, and it followed a decrease of $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2012, according to a recent National Science Foundation report. That's in contrast from what happened from 2008 and 2011, when federal R&D increased, thanks to the federal stimulus following the housing market and investment banking collapses.

Climate change poses some of the most difficult challenges in technology. Storage technology that can collect energy from wind and solar generation is key to making alternatives supplies work. Fusion reactors are a possible source of energy, and carbon capture technologies – removing carbon from the air – may have promise, but both technologies are still in their early stages of development.

Broadly, the Democratic presidential candidates are urging action on climate change, while the Republicans are guarded and see proposals, such as the carbon tax backed by Sanders, as destructive to the economy.

"When we build weapons systems that cost billions of dollars, we take it for granted that the engineers know what they are talking about," said Sanders, at a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee hearing last year. "But right now we are in a very strange moment in American history … we have virtually an entire political party that is rejecting basic science, and the science is no longer in doubt."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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