Obama, McCain Shun Science at the Podium

Well, I’m back from a whale of a vacation (where my family and I got a chance to watch orcas and humpbacks do their thing), just in time to catch the presidential conventions. Even by Washington, D.C. standards, this is high theater. But missing from the hours of nightly politicking on issues that are supposed to define public concerns will be details of where the presidential candidates stand on science.<!—->

As I’ve noted in blogs earlier this year, a large grassroots effort has repeatedly invited the presidential contenders to step up to the podium and directly address science and technology issues. While “hope springs eternal,” it doesn’t look like a face-to-face on S&T will take place, says Shawn Lawrence Otto. He’s a founding member of the Science Debate 2008 organizing committee. And since last November, his group has attempted to get the ever dwindling lineup of would-be presidents to answer questions on how each would, if he or she made it to the White House, support research — and tap it to craft national policy.


At last, there is some good news, Otto reports. Both John McCain’s and Barack Obama’s campaigns have agreed to answer via their computers’ keyboards 14 questions compiled by the Science Debate team. Their issues run the gamut: from stem cells, space exploration and science education to what the contenders have in mind for reviving moribund funding of the nation’s research enterprise.

Obama’s group had suggested its answers might be emailed in before tonight’s Democratic Convention began. That obviously didn’t happen. McCain’s campaign told Otto they’re working up answers to the questions, but offered no clue as to when its responses might be forthcoming.

While responses from both camps are heartily welcomed, they’re a poor substitute for a real debate. One where we get to hear the nuances in someone’s voice and see whether a candidate appears truly up to speed on the issues or is just reciting rote responses handed him earlier in the day by one of the campaign’s resident geeks.

In a real debate, someone has to answer quickly on his feet. He can’t send his minions to craft painfully, over hours or days, a few skillful paragraphs that seem to promise what we want to hear but that carefully, purposefully leave out detailed substance. In a true debate, the opposing camp gets to challenge assertions or omissions made by the other. We wouldn’t be left reading and rereading a few terse sentences to divine, often between the lines, what the candidate really means.

Still, late and incomplete responses are better than none especially in this election, where superficially the two leading candidates share so much in common. They aren’t clones of each other. And it’s because they aren’t that every published comment that might differentiate the candidates becomes so important.

Obama? McCain? It’s irresponsible to choose between them on the basis of those slick, 30-second advertising appeals to our hearts or our patriotism that each side makes. One of these statesmen will win the right to shape the destiny of American science and innovation. We should all weigh in on who’s likely to prove the better leader. But it’s also incumbent upon each of us to learn as much as we can before we cast those all-important ballots.

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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