Sciencepolitica: Science Debate Seeks to Find Out What Politicians Know About Science

Update:  Shawn Otto of Science Debate will be featured on NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday at 2 ET.  Discussion on science in the elections.

In 2007, a small group of American citizens, lead by Shawn Otto, created Science Debate 2008, an organization that called on the 2008 presidential candidates to hold a debate on science and its political implications for society.  A presidential debate on science was never held.  Here, according to Science Debate 2008, is the story:

The candidates refused.  The Science Debate team secured cosponsors in the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Council on Competitiveness.  They secured bipartisan congressional co-chairs.  They made a deal with NOVA and NOW on PBS to broadcast the debate, and secured a venue.  But the candidates instead opted to debate their religious faith in two nationally televised “faith forums.

The American science and engineering community was stunned.  These issues lie at the center of most of the major unresolved policy challenges facing the country, and yet the candidates refused to debate them.  The team went to work with other leading science organizations to cull the submitted questions into “The Top 14 Science Questions Facing America,” and teamed with Research!America to do a national poll to show the candidates that 85% of the American public thought that debating these topics was important.

This time, the candidates responded.  They assembled teams of science advisers to help them answer the questions, which helped inform their strategic thinking.  The inauguration of Barack Obama marked the first time a president has gone into office with a fully formed science policy and a sense of how it fits into his overall strategic agenda.  In a day and age when science affects every aspect of our lives and lies at the center of the causes and solutions of many of our most intractable public policy challenges, this was an important new development.

Science Debate 2012 has called once again for a science presidential debate, and for the first time, a set of eight questions for Congressional discussion.   Whether the Obama or Romney campaigns will sign off on a debate that focuses on science is unknown.  Most likely they will turn the questions over to their science advisors to answer in writing.

Sciencepolitica: Science in the Political Arena

Science Debate has created a forum to explore significant science issues in the presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.  Are the candidates qualified to discuss these issues?  As Shawn Otto puts it, Obama and Romney spend a lot of time talking about the economy, yet neither is an economist.  They express opinions on foreign policy, yet neither is a diplomat.  They should be able to discuss science and how it impacts people and society, even though neither is a scientist.

Science has not been in the background.  Extreme earth conditions, such as the Greenland ice melt, to the calving of huge hunks of glacial ice in Antarctica, the drought and forest fires in many American states, monsoon rains in China are TV stories nearly every night.  Over the past few years, the politicization of science has led to stalemates on many areas that need to be addressed: climate change and global warming, energy sustainability, clean water, & unpolluted oceans.  Science and mathematics education have been the target of many news stories, especially when international test results are released.  In most of the news stories, a “sky is falling” scenario is played out, leading politicians and corporate leaders to denigrate the state of science and mathematics education.

When scientific findings, however, conflict with personal and corporate interests, mudslinging in the form of personal attacks on each scientist and educator (for example Rachel Carson) and junk science claims on the scientific research community emerge.

Politicians love to use the term “junk science.” It is primarily used to cast doubt on and deride scientific findings, even if the findings were published in peer-reviewed journals, and supported by the scientific community. Junk science is evoked to counter global warming theories, and especially the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which has provided us with a comprehensive picture of the state of global warming. Even though the panel has reviewed thousands of studies, there are politicians and some in the media, who claim these conclusions are based on “junk science” and that until some “sound science” comes down the road, we should put a halt on any recommendations related to the data.
It’s important for us to know how the two presidential candidates interpret the findings of science.  We have a clue that Obama respects the scientific community, especially based on his science advisory appointments in the current administration.  We’ll know later this year what Romney thinks about science when his team answers the Science Debatequestions.

Science Debate has opened the conversation to a wider audience,  but we face gridlock on most of the 14 science issues proposed by Science Debate.  Debating the issues openly in democratic forums will enable the candidates to show how they would deal with these issues that are important to all Americans.

Significantly, Science Debate is partnering with Scientific American and other leading science organization to promote discussion of science issues in this year’s election.  Science Debate has reached out to the Obama and Romney campaigns to take part in a televised debate on science and science education.  The odds are slim that either will agree to debate.  Instead they will turn to their science advisers to write answers to the questions   Their replies will be published on the Science Debate and Scientific American websites as the 2008 answers were posted.  Scientific American has indicated that it will grade the answers.  I wonder if they will determine the Value Added Measure for their advisors.

The Questions

The question is what do Obama and Romney know about science?  To find out, Science Debate and its partners has devised 14 questions.  You will find the 2008 and 2012 questions in Table 1. The questions include topics on innovation, climate change, energy, biosecurity, food, the Internet, ocean health, water, space, natural resources, health, and education.

The questions are based on our understanding of various problems that society faces.  Each question provides a bit of context, and rationale for being included in the Science Debate questionnaire.  Simple answers do not exist for any of these questions.

Christine Gorman, of Scientific American suggests why it is important to ask the presidential candidates about science:

The point is, as informed citizens, we need to know how the presidential candidates expect to address the basic scientific issues that are so vital to our country’s and our planet’s future—and that their policies will be based on sound science. The best showcase for such a discussion would be a live debate between the candidates dedicated entirely to scientific issues.

 

Science Debate 2008 and 2012 Questions

Table 1.  Science Debate 2008 and 2012 Questions for a Presidential Candidate Debate

Science Debate 2008 Questions Science Debate 2012 Questions
1. Innovation. Science and technology have been responsible for half of the growth of the American economy since WWII. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will you support to ensure that America remains the world leader in innovation? 1. Innovation and the Economy. Science and technology have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII, when the federal government first prioritized peacetime science mobilization. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?
2. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change—a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research?  Are there other policies you would support? 2. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?
3. Energy. Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. What policies would you support to meet demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future? 3.Energy  Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?
4. Education. A comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, while average U.S. math scores ranked 24th.  What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century? 4. Education  Increasingly, the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st.  In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?
5. National Security. Science and technology are at the core of national security like never before.  What is your view of how science and technology can best be used to ensure national security and where should we put our focus? 5. Research and the Future.  Federally funded research has helped to produce America’s major postwar economies and to ensure our national security, but today the UK, Singapore, China, and Korea are making competitive investments in research.  Given that the next Congress will face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in research in your upcoming budgets.
6. Pandemics and Biosecurity. Some estimates suggest that if H5N1 Avian Flu becomes a pandemic it could kill more than 300 million people. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from global pandemics or deliberate biological attacks? 6. Pandemics and Biosecurity. Recent experiments show how Avian flu may become transmissible among mammals. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from emerging diseases, global pandemics and/or deliberate biological attacks?
7. Genetics research. The field of genetics has the potential to improve human health and nutrition, but many people are concerned about the effects of genetic modification both in humans and in agriculture. What is the right policy balance between the benefits of genetic advances and their potential risks? 7. Food. Thanks to science and technology, the United States has the world’s most productive and diverse agricultural sector, yet many Americans are increasingly concerned about the health and safety of our food.  The use of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, as well as animal diseases and even terrorism pose risks.  What steps would you take to ensure the health, safety and productivity of America’s food supply?
8. Stem cells.  Stem cell research advocates say it may successfully lead to treatments for many chronic diseases and injuries, saving lives, but opponents argue that using embryos as a source for stem cells destroys human life.  What is your position on government regulation and funding of stem cell research? 8. The Internet. The Internet plays a central role in both our economy and our society.  What role, if any, should the federal government play in managing the Internet to ensure its robust social, scientific, and economic role?
9. Ocean Health. Scientists estimate that some 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are in serious decline and habitats around the world like coral reefs are seriously threatened. What steps, if any, should the United States take during your presidency to protect ocean health? 9. Ocean Health.  Scientists estimate that 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are in serious decline, habitats like coral reefs are threatened, and large areas of ocean and coastlines are polluted. What role should the federal government play domestically and through foreign policy to protect the environmental health and economic vitality of the oceans?
10. Water. Thirty-nine states expect some level of water shortage over the next decade, and scientific studies suggest that a majority of our water resources are at risk.  What policies would you support to meet demand for water resources? 10. Fresh Water. Less than one percent of the world’s water is liquid fresh water, and scientific studies suggest that a majority of U.S. and global fresh water is now at risk because of increasing consumption, evaporation and pollution.  What steps, if any, should the federal government take to secure clean, abundant fresh water for all Americans?
11. Space.  The study of Earth from space can yield important information about climate change; focus on the cosmos can advance our understanding of the universe; and manned space travel can help us inspire new generations of youth to go into science.  Can we afford all of them?   How would you prioritize space in your administration? 11. Space.  The United States is currently in a major discussion over our national goals in space.  What should America’s space exploration and utilization goals be in the 21st century and what steps should the government take to help achieve them?
12. Scientific Integrity. Many government scientists report political interference in their job.  Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making? 12. Science in Public Policy. We live in an era when science and technology affect every aspect of life and society, and so must be included in well-informed public policy decisions.  How will you ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are fully informed by the best available scientific and technical information, and that the public is able to evaluate the basis of these policy decisions?
13. Research.For many years, Congress has recognized the importance of science and engineering research to realizing our national goals.  Given that the next Congress will likely face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in basic research in upcoming budgets? 13. Critical Natural Resources.  Supply shortages of natural resources affect economic growth, quality of life, and national security; for example China currently produces 97% of rare earth elements needed for advanced electronics.   What steps should the federal government take to ensure the quality and availability of critical natural resources?
14. Health. Americans are increasingly concerned with the cost, quality and availability of health care.  How do you see science, research and technology contributing to improved health and quality of life? 14. Vaccination and public health.  Vaccination campaigns against preventable diseases such as measles, polio and whooping cough depend on widespread participation to be effective, but in some communities vaccination rates have fallen off sharply. What actions would you support to enforce vaccinations in the interest of public health, and in what circumstances should exemptions be allowed?

Which of the Science Debate 2012 questions is most important to you?

 

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.

…and I’M STILL FOR HER.

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