Thursday, December 13, 2007

Science Debate 2008

Seemingly out of nowhere, a grassroots movement has erupted over the last few days calling for a debate between US presidential candidates on science-related issues.  Scientists, science writers, politicians, and bloggers have joined forces to form

which has the credo listed in the sidebar:
    Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we, the undersigned, call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Medicine and Health, and Science and Technology Policy.
What a great idea!  Ordinarily, it might be difficult to convince the public that science should be debated by politicians.  It could have been argued that scientific issues are too arcane, something for advisors or technocrats to address, not folksy leaders.
But today so many issues are tied to science that one can argue effectively that it is crucial for our leaders have good science sense.
  • It's crucial for security issues, because so many security concerns are tied to our dependency on foreign oil.  Our leaders need to know what the pros and cons of each energy alternative are.  
  • It's crucial for environmental issues, especially global warming.  Leaders need to understand the magnitude of the threat, the wide spectrum of potential consequences, and the set of things we can do to mitigate the problems.
  • It's crucial for economic issues, because science and technology are such an important part of the US and the world economy.  We need to be prepared for the future (see for example the report Rising above the gathering storm).
Also, it is important that we know where our leaders stand on issues of science and morality, religion, and priorities.
  • Would they allow stem cell research with frozen embryos? [It is not clear that this is a moot point yet.]
  • Do they believe in evolution?  Can they articulate what evolution is?  Should religious ideas be taught in science classes?
  • Which is more important, putting humans in space (which includes building things to allow them to survive, like space stations), or putting scientific instruments in space (e.g., space telescopes and robotic landers)?
A debate among presidential candidates, if it did nothing else, would get the candidates to think about these important issues.


Anonymous said...

Excellent idea.

I'd add a question or two regarding process. Since the federal Office of Technology Assessment was closed in 1995 (for no good reason) presentation of technology issues within the government has been anecdotal. As far as I know, presentation of scientific issues has never been anything but anecdotal.

Given the importance of science and technology to our society and economy, it might be a good idea to have some sort of organized method of dealing with these issues, rather than waiting until there's a hot-button incident (such as Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's re stem cells) or a full-blown crisis (such as global warming).

Process. It's not just for industrial engineers.

eyesopen said...

I agree completely. One possibility would be to make the Science Advisor a cabinet level position.

Also, it is not just issues of science that languish until forced to our attention. Our politics as a whole need to be more proactive.

Of course we can't blame all of this on the politicians. They just tell us what we want to hear. We all need to demand a more thoughtful, forward-thinking government.