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Volume 86 Issue 6 | p. 5 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: February 11, 2008

A Debate On Science

Department: Editor's Page

THE CANDIDATES of both major political parties have shown an uncommon willingness to debate each other during the long campaign for this year's presidential nomination. I have to admit that I have been at best an intermittent follower of these debates, however, as they have become numbingly repetitive and uninformative.

Only a few topics seem to dominate: immigration, Iraq, the economy, and terrorism. Too often, the conversation isn't about much of anything beyond who is further to the left or the right of the other candidates, depending on which party is involved.

An area that has almost never been touched on during the debates is science and technology policy. Unfortunately, I have become inured to politicians avoiding substantive discussions of pressing science and technology issues, even though I strongly believe that such issues are among the most critical facing the U.S. and the world today.

Fortunately, not everyone concerned about science is as jaded as I am when it comes to politicians. A grassroots group called Science Debate 2008 has come together quite rapidly to call for a debate among presidential candidates devoted exclusively to science and technology issues (www.sciencedebate2008.com).

Launched in December 2007, Science Debate 2008 is the brainchild of Matthew Chapman, a journalist and screenwriter, and Shawn Lawrence Otto, a filmmaker. A number of prominent scientists, university presidents, business leaders, editors of science-oriented publications (including myself), and government officials rapidly signed on. The group's steering committee includes Reps. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) and Rush Holt (D-N.J.), two of only a handful of members of Congress trained as scientists. Numerous organizations focused on science, technology, and engineering have also signed on as supporters, as have research universities. (The American Chemical Society is actively considering backing the initiative.)

The group's call is straightforward: "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 call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of the environment, health and medicine, and science and technology policy."

The list of potential topics the debate could cover is long. The Science Debate 2008 website, for instance, lists under "The Environment": climate change, conservation and species loss, the future of the oceans, freshwater, population growth and the environment, and renewable energy research; under "Health and Medicine": global diseases and pandemics, stem cell research, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, drug patents and generic drugs, the genome, and bioethics; and under "Science and Technology Policy": scientific innovation and economic growth, improving science education, space exploration, preserving scientific integrity in government, and energy policy. To that list, I would add, at the very least, funding basic research in the physical sciences.

Clearly, many details need to be worked out. When and where such a debate would be held, what organization(s) would sponsor it, who would be invited to participate, and who would frame and ask the questions are all still up in the air. What is important, though, is that the call for such a debate has gone out and resonated so forcefully with such a diverse group of individuals and organizations.

What Science Debate 2008 says is that science and technology issues are important to many U.S. citizens. The questions are difficult ones and will force candidates to commit to positions that entail genuine change in how we run our economy and how we do research. For example, "Mr. or Ms. Presidential Candidate: Do you favor a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system to control emissions of CO2?" Or, "Should the focus of the U.S. space program be on establishing human outposts on the moon and Mars or on Earth-observing satellites and satellites and robotic missions to other planets and bodies in the solar system?"

Get involved. Let's make this debate a reality.

Thanks for reading.

 

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

 

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