Candidates Keep Dodging Science Debate

Several months ago, a couple of screenwriters sidelined by the writer’s strike were lamenting the state of U.S. science when one of them decided it was time they did something about it. Almost at once, they launched the idea of a research-themed Presidential debate (see 1/23 blog)—and a website to explain why it seemed such a good idea. At the project’s inception, there were a lot more candidates in the race and the politicos represented a broader spectrum of attitudes than do the frontrunners today.

A bit naïve, the organizers thought they could persuade candidates for leader of the free world into talking science. So far, no dice. Which is why we’re still awaiting an open and lively discussion of research-dominated issues pertinent to our society. Like science illiteracy, evolution, stem-cell research, incentives for spurring industrial competitiveness, and incentives to encourage a market-driven economy into tackling climate change.

For the Minnesota-based Shawn Otto, screenwriter of the 2003 film, House of Sand and Fog, stumping for the science debate has “morphed into a full time job.” One fraught with frustration.

Recently, it looked like there was a chance the debate might get the green light for April 18 in Philadelphia—in time to, among other things, inform Pennsylvania voters before they cast ballots in the state primary. The Franklin Institute offered to host. A noted national (non-science) journalist has prepared to sign on to moderate the event. The expectation is that a panel of three scientists would formulate the actual questions.

In fact, “it’s not looking likely” that science will be something the candidates debate before Pennsylvania’s April 22 primary.

“What we’re struggling with is that the candidates are really trying to avoid this,” Otto says. “We’ve been dealing with their reticence and their fear by talking to them and their campaign staff.” What keeps the debate’s supporters going, Otto says, is their feeling that science “will be among the most critical issues that the next President is going to face.”

After all, he argues, a President can’t reasonably hand over to the science advisor responsibility for setting climate-change policy or designing an economic-competitiveness package. Those issues will challenge the next administration, and it would be nice to know the chief executive has done his or her homework before moving into the White House.

Otto, who has a major screenplay in development on the life of cosmologist Edwin Hubble, stepped up to the debate plate “because I have a 12-year-old boy and I’m concerned about the kind of world we’re going to be leaving behind for him. And I think I share that concern with a significant number of other Americans.”

So far, more than 37,000 individuals have signed up to support a Science Debate (among them Elizabeth Marincola, publisher of Science News). Representatives of 170-plus universities and other organizations have also lent their support. Altogether, these signatories represent 128 million people, Otto’s team has calculated.

With the Philly-debate date fast approaching and no candidate welcoming the opportunity to take part, Otto’s group is now looking to Oregon—with a May 20 primary—as an alternate venue.

I, for one, hope his group ultimately succeeds. Issues that rely on science shouldn’t be relegated to a back-burner, as subjects to bone up on only if needed at some later date. It’s the fact that the candidates haven’t done their science homework—and don’t want their ignorance to show—that they keep ducking calls to debate these issues. It’s time we tell them a pop quiz is coming, and that 128 million of us will be grading the answers.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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