January 24, 2008 The Pump Handle 3Comment

Yesterday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science – the world’s largest general scientific society – announced its co-sponsorship of the Science Debate 2008 campaign (which we at The Pump Handle support, and blogged about here).

In light of recent economic events, the press release announcing AAAS’s co-sponsorship focused on the link between science and economic success:

“Science and engineering have driven half the nation’s growth in GDP over the last half-century,” said AAAS CEO Alan Leshner, “and lie at the center of many of the major policy and economic challenges the next president will face. We feel that a presidential debate on science would be helpful to America’s national political dialogue.” Leshner has also joined the group’s steering committee.

The effort is being co-chaired by Congressmen Vern Ehlers, R-MI, and Rush Holt, D-NJ, and is also being championed by Congressman Bart Gordon, chair of the House Science & Technology Committee. It includes several former presidential science advisers from both major political parties. “We have to recognize there are roughly seven billion people in the world, half of whom make less than $2 a day. We cannot and would not want to compete with that,” said Gordon. “We have to compete at a higher level with a better equipped and skilled workforce than that of our global counterparts – and we do that by focusing on science, education and innovation.”

The endorsers of the ScienceDebate2008.com initiative include economists; several Nobel laureates and other leading scientists and engineers; executives from Apple Computer, Google, Merck, Hyatt, and other leading companies; two dozen presidents of major American colleges and research universities; and the editors of major science publications and journals.

There have been several recent reports warning of potential erosion of the American economy and recommending changes in science and technology policies, said Shawn Lawrence Otto, one of the group’s organizers. “A recent Business Roundtable report shows that if current trends continue, in another two years over 90 percent of all scientists and engineers will live in Asia,” Otto said. The group’s web site also points to similar findings from a 2005 National Academies of Science report on science and the economy and a National Science Board report released just last week.

“It’s a new, global knowledge economy. Dealing with that is going to be a pretty major policy question for the next president – one that affects the pocketbook of every American. When you add global warming, the healthcare crisis, biotechnology, and transportation, it starts looking like many of the major issues the next president will face are not being seriously debated,” said Otto.

Science Debate has set a mid-April date for the event, and expects to announce details soon. In the meantime, Wired Science’s Loretta Hidalgo Whiteside reports on the movement’s growing momentum, and the prospects for playing a role in the election:

The next step is to contact the campaigns and invite the candidates to participate. With such heavyweights of the scientific community getting behind this it would be hard to say no. Even if the debate itself will have to wait until after Super Tuesday, having it on the calendar would do a lot to remind voters to take science into consideration.

With the nominations for both parties still an open question, debates are likely to continue – and science merits a spot on the calendar.

3 thoughts on “Science Debate 2008 Gets a Boost

  1. I too support the science debate (and have blogged about it). So three cheers for the AAAS jumping on board!

    The idea that “Science and engineering have driven half the nation’s growth in GDP over the last half-century” is not necessary a positive one. The concepts of both GDP and growth must be challenged (and they are being challenged).

    Instead of the GDP which measures total activity, the positive like food production as well the negative like polution clean up and prison construction, we should be pushing people to learn about the GPI, Genuine Progress Indicator which subtracts negative from positive activity giving a more reasonable indication of progess.

    Instead of growth for growth’s sake (like a cancerous tumor), we need to be thinking about what kind of growth is good. Growth in oil production, consumption, and CO2 emissions is all harmful to people. Growth in wind and solar generate electricity is entirely benefitial. Sprawling cities aren’t very helpful, but new urban design concepts are. And so on.

    Perhaps with ScienceDebate2008 we can get some of these ideas out, challenge the traditional notions of economics, and expose people to the idea of ecological economics. This seems like something The Pump Handle might get behind.

  2. Good point about the kind of growth being important. I think one of the things holding some companies back from investing in more sustainable ways of doing business is the demand that they be growing constantly — and not just over the long term, but every quarter.

    It will be difficult to change the perception that growth is good, but it’s definitely worth trying to change the calculation behind the growth numbers.

  3. A human analogy: if you are 7 fet tall growing taller isn’t good in any sense. That’s where we are at in terms of the world’s population and the growth of per capita consumption. Sticking with business as usual means continuing to live far beyond the planet’s carrying capacity.

    You are quite right that “It will be difficult to change the perception that growth is good” — although I do hope more people come to understand infinite growth is not only bad, but destructive of Earth’s resources (on which our economy rests) and impossible in a very literal sense.

    This is exactly where science can lend a hand — the sciences of ecology and (although I hesistate to call it a science) economics. Ecological economics has been around for decades but is only now gaining a little steam. It’s premise is that traditional economics sees the natural world as external to it where in fact economic activity takes place within, depends on, and affects the natural world.

    The biologist E. O. Wilson in The Future of Life (Knopf, 2002) talks about the natural economy and the traditional economy and how we need to marry the two. Only then can we stop things like the destruction of rain forests, radical elimination of biological species (which we depend on), pollution of the atmosphere, soil, and water, etc.

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