“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 weâve noted before, one major problems over the last few years has been the administrationâs tendency to ignore, distort, or suppress scientific findings and advice that didnât 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 âthe public tends to be on our side when we make science an issue,â 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 votersâ lives â because once they realize this, a lot of voters will come down on the side of science.