Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Science Debate 2012

Warning: Today's post is political in nature, but don't worry, it is really sciency too.

I am posting this because it directly relates to science, and even though it deals with American politics, the resulting policies will impact the rest of the world. I'm not taking a political side and all of the links presented here give equal time to each side.

If you are interested in science - education, policy, funding, etc. - then you should check out Science Debate 2012.

In November 2007 a small group of U.S. citizens -  two screenwriters, a physicist, a marine biologist, a philosopher and a science journalist - wanted to work towards restoring science and innovation to America's political dialogue. So they put together Science Debate 2008. The idea was very simple: A presidential debate on science. This idea turned out to be very popular. Within weeks, more than 38,000 scientists, engineers, and other concerned Americans signed on (see who here and sign in here). It became so popular as to grow into the largest political initiative in the history of science, representing over 125 million people. These people submitted thousands of questions they wanted the presidential candidates to answer about science and the future of America (submit your own question here).

Long story short, the candidates refused. They refused even after the Science Debate team secured cosponsors in the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Council on Competitiveness. They refused after bipartisan congressional co-chairs were secured. They refused after a deal was made with NOVA and NOW on PBS to broadcast the debate, and a venue was secured. Instead, the candidates opted to debate their religious faith in two nationally televised "faith forums." In my opinion, we probably didn't need two of those, one would have gotten the point across nicely.

Want to stun the scientific and engineering community? That is how you do it. Considering that the questions that would have been asked at this debate lie at the center of most of the major unresolved policy challenges facing the country, it is kind of amazing that the candidates would refuse to debate them. So what was the next step?

The Science Debate team culled their thousands of 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. That's a large percentage, one the candidates couldn't really keep ignoring. Response attained, televised debate still refused. The candidates assembled teams of science advisers to help them answer the questions in written form. That's good. It helps inform the candidates' strategic thinking and gets them to look, in detail, at topics that they really should have already been looking at. The result: 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.

Now the U.S. is on the verge of another election. Are we getting our Science Debate 2012? Unfortunately, no. But both candidates have answered "The Top 14 Science Questions Facing America." Science Debate 2012 gives a nice side-by-side comparison of the candidates answers. Now, I know that many of us Americans have already picked our candidate, but I still encourage everyone to read through the responses to these questions. Both sides!

Perhaps just as interesting, the Science Debate 2012 team partnered with Scientific American and posed a subset of eight of the 14 questions to thirty-three members of Congress in leadership positions on the nation's science-oriented congressional committees. Six of them declined outright, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, who were asked to participate because of their overall responsibility for the flow of legislation through Congress. Several more ignored numerous requests from ScienceDebate and Scientific American. Nine of the thirty-three responded. If you think about it, the U.S. Congress is a very powerful branch of government (more powerful than many Americans realize), and so I also encourage everyone to read the few responses that were sent.


My parting words on this topic: If you can vote, please vote!

Nov 1, 2012 UPDATE:
This morning a Presidential Surrogate Debate was held called "After Sandy: Climate Change, Science, and the Next 4 Years." This debate featured Obama campaign surrogate Kevin Knobloch and former Republican congressman and Delaware governor Mike Castle, and it was moderated by Chris Mooney of ClimateDesk Live and Shawn Otto of ScienceDebate.org -- Watch it here:

Watch live streaming video from climatenexus at livestream.com

If you want to keep reading on this topic:
Scientific American article: "Does Congress Get a Passing Grade on Science?"
Science Magazine article: "In a Torrent of Campaign Rhetoric, Hints of Science Policy"
LA Times' article: "Obama and Romney answer questions about science policy"
The Scientist's article: "Obama's Science Report Card"
... and more!

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