February 5, 2008 The Pump Handle 1Comment

The push for a presidential candidate science debate is stronger than ever: Yesterday, the National Academies joined other prestigious organizations to co-sponsor the effort.

“This would provide a nonpartisan setting to educate voters on the candidates’ positions on key science, technology, and health challenges facing the next administration, while giving the candidates an opportunity to discuss issues that are often overlooked in presidential candidate debates but that are critical to U.S. competitiveness,” the presidents of the NAS, NAE, and IOM said in a statement.

“A discussion focused on such issues as how to spur innovation, improve science and math education, confront climate change, and guide advances in biotechnology would do much to inform the American electorate,” the statement adds.

As we’ve noted before, one major problems over the last few years has been the administration’s tendency to ignore, distort, or suppress scientific findings and advice that didn’t jibe with its political goals. Will focusing public attention on scientific issues really help counteract this?

Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas makes a good case for why a science debate could improve presidential treatment of scientific issues. He argues that “the public tends to be on our side when we make science an issue,” and points out that Kansan voters will turn out to put evolution supporters in the majority on school boards, and that California and Missouri voters backed initiatives to fund stem-cell research. Of those, he explains, the Missouri race was particularly instructive:

In 2004, Claire McCaskill narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid after beating the sitting Democratic governor in the primaries. Given her strong performance in that statewide race, she was a natural choice to run against Senator Jim Talent in 2006. He was a conservative Republican, she was a moderate Democrat. He opposed stem cell research, she favored it. He backed Bush to the hilt, she didn’t.

Survey USA noted in a poll released shortly before the election treated the race as unpollable, noting that “There is a complex, symbiotic relationship in Missouri between the U.S. Senate race and Amendment 2, on stem-cell research. It is difficult to separate cause and effect.” Shifts in opinion about stem cell research (driven by advertisements by Michael J. Fox and local sports stars) drove shifts in opinion about the candidates, which in turn drove changes in views on the stem cell initiative. The public did pay attention, and did think seriously about that scientific policy question. And, in the end, Claire McCaskill and the stem cell initiative both won, helping ensure a Democratic Senate, and funding for stem cell research in Missouri. The public paid attention, and voted for science.

ScienceDebate2008 can succeed by focusing attention on the scientific issues, and how our next president will evaluate scientific input to the policy process. The stem cell debate in Missouri went beyond stem cells, to questions of how you evaluate new and promising research opportunities when they may raise ethical questions. How do you balance the chance to save lives against those ethical concerns? How much should you trust scientists to make wise choices, and to set their own agenda in pursuing research, and to what extent should the government act to encourage or discourage research in certain directions? Those are critical questions, and a candidate need not have a deep understanding of particular scientific facts to address those broader issues. The public cares about those questions, and cares about how candidates treat those questions.

The Michael J. Fox ads helped people recognize the stakes in a scientific issue that might otherwise seem abstract and irrelevant to their lives. I hope the Science Debate organizers make a point of showing how scientific issues, from basic research to studies on global warming, can affect voters’ lives – because once they realize this, a lot of voters will come down on the side of science.

One thought on “National Academies Support Science Debate

  1. Re: a Sci Debate 2008 Strategy, also a suggested debate question

    Hi, I’ve read about the Science Debate 2008 effort in mag’s but you’re site motivated me to sign on and forward them this attached suggestion. I thought you might find it of interest as well. Thanks for the great blogging.

    Viewed from the perspective of game theory, might it be possible to set things up so that the goals of SD-2008 are achieved and we “win” regardless of any other players options (candidates, media, public).

    The outcome may or may not achieve a Nash Equilibrium as it’s currently being played. It will be too easy to make Science debate 2008 “disappear” by the candidates simply not responding. What if one person agrees to come and the other doesn’t? What if they both wait on the other to say yes? What if neither comes? What if the press ignores us, as they are largely doing now? What if the candidates determine that (1) there isn’t enough public interest in this type of debate OR that the degree of interest that does exist isn’t enough to (2) warrant the risk of opening up whole new cans of worms in the last stretch? What if there were a way to eliminate all of these “failure modes” and insure a “checkmate” regardless of what the answer turns out to be to any of the questions just posed?

    Hold the debate with, or without the candidates.
    Threaten to hold a “virtual” debate if one, or neither shows.

    The Benefits & Rationale:
    This makes it worthwhile for one to show, especially if the other doesn’t. If one, or neither, shows, threaten to use computerized avatars.

    A big screen can be set up behind a podium with a live image of the “in-world” candidates’ responses. If a candidate doesn’t show and provides no official representative, then a panel of political pundits will have to provide the best answers it can. Actual video snippets of relevant speeches could also be used where applicable. Free speech allows this; if the candidates don’t or won’t supply and answer, do the best you can from what’s publicly available. If they don’t like the idea of a virtual representation of themselves, or the virtual respondents answers, or appearance – tough; As long as the process for determining what a candidate’s position might or might not be is transparent, let them complain as much as they want, a best effort is a best effort.

    Have the big-name signers show up to the event, secure funding from one of the larger philanthropies to finance the event and defer expenses for key persons.

    By the way – There is a very synergistic (simple and low-cost) way to easily provide a candidate avatar that can speak and look like them for use on a real-world podium screen – Simply hold a real-time mirror meeting in Second Life (secondlife.com). We can provide the answers and control the candidate’s avatar if they are a no-show. If one or both DO SHOW – the in-world virtual meeting should still be attended by their virtual avatars (that will now have the benefit of the real candidates’ responses). This would also, notably, represent the largest “town-hall” meeting ever! Picture a virtual stadium (i.e.: picture Star-Wars Galactic Congress scene) that can hold tens of thousands – or millions.

    As I’m about to explain, this provides another potentially huge benefit, and further checkmates any possibility of being “ignored.”

    A No-Lose Scenario:
    If candidates don’t show; the “virtual” Second-life angle will attract enough media attention that the candidates will be pressured to agree/disagree with whatever transpires. Remember, it is to be conducted with, or without them. Yes, it (dramatically) increases the odds of their participation, but even if they don’t show up, our goals are achieved – in full. If they provide official answers for use by their avatars (they are much more likely to show than to do this I suspect), we are provided both the answers we seek plus a larger enough public platform to insure that many persons will hear it. Indeed, the controversy, novelty, and newsworthiness of this game-plan can potentially deliver more awareness of the event (and the candidates positions) than were we to succeed under the current game-plan, presuming they actually do agree to a debate and that people actually do care about it; neither of which is a given.

    Increased Media & Public Interest:
    Whereas the media might choose to belittle or ignore a faux meeting held without candidates, the “novelty-interest” of the Second-life and avatar-candidate aspect will insure coverage on morning and evening broadcasts, major magazines and papers. But there’s more – thousands of people can attend a meeting held in second life – and from its current community of over a million, tens to hundreds of thousands is a very real possibility. That makes it much harder for the candidates or the media to ignore.

    This game-plan (scenario) also creates a new e-venue for engaging the public that is commensurate with the concept of promoting E-commerce advances (at least one candidate has said they support additional e-research).

    Outcome of All Possible Scenarios:

    A Suggested Candidate Question:
    Will the candidates support major patent reform and legal innovation?

    – Specifically to include special term extensions for patents that qualify on the basis of the scale of their novelty or that spur innovation in specific areas of world and national priority (as is now done in some situations for drugs).

    This is needed to speed the pace of innovation for nascent gene, nanotech, cryogenic, and new-energy industries. It is becoming almost impossible to make true breakthroughs in a garage and most R & D is done by large companies, universities, and the governments. This makes it imperative, if one wishes to encourage entirely new, still unknown, industries that are to come that the investment be recoverable and economically justifiable. Even those that may argue the finer points of Kuhn’s arguments regarding scientific progress, adequate documentation exists that, generally, breakthrough innovations aren’t a specialty of the corporate, university, or government mindset and typically occur in spite of them, not because of them.

    Patent reform is thus critically needed in those areas where the benefits may not be seen for some time. This can help compensate for the inherent tendency (Kuhn) for “big-science” to be myopically short-sighted and conservative (or worse; protective and dismissive). Patent reform can also help to salve the venture-capitals desire for short-term returns.

    Final Argument
    Even in the computer industry it typically takes 15 or more years from the moment a truly innovative idea is first conceived to its introduction as a product, this is too long (this was even true of the mouse). If someone has a brilliant idea to solve a world-wide problem, such as clean energy; say for a solar power satellite innovation – there’s no commercialization path (or incentive) because patent periods are far too brief. A short patent period was to spur innovation but especially for large projects, it strongly inhibits progress. Its not just large and/or innovative “hardware” that’s affected; longer-term investments for energy, social, ecological, economic, software, space, and basic-science physics and biological research efforts are stymied as well.

    Additional Detail, Con’t;
    Patent extensions can deservedly be said to apply to those innovations that will require a significant time for application or for infrastructure development;
    OR that are in service to a national goal; such as a Mars or Moon base, or discovery of extraterrestrial life, or fast genome sequencing/protein expression, or theory of everything/gravity;
    OR that meet a national-priority “high-need” area such as counter-terrorism, energy, and threat of epidemics;
    OR that address a world-wide high-priority problem such as endemic poverty, health, starvation, conflict resolution, effective global economic, social, and climate simulations, or global-focused ecological and climate remediation methods.

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