Want a Science Debate?

Concerned that our lawmakers don’t fully appreciate the value of maintaining strong investments in science and engineering? Do you even know where the presidential candidates stand on stem-cell research, the dismantling of EPA libraries, or the proposed shutdown of a particle collider in California (and retrenchment of activities at another in Illinois)? Well, you should be concerned — and know which potential leader of the Free World is least likely to gut federal funding for the very research that promotes innovation and economic growth.

At least that’s what the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others, is advocating.

Indeed, AAAS announced today (Jan. 23) that it’s jumped on the bandwagon of a grassroots initiative calling for a presidential debate of issues that focus squarely on science and engineering — aspects of the economy that “have driven half the nation’s growth in GDP over the last half-century.” That’s gross domestic product — or national income — we’re talking about.

Research disciplines “lie at the center of many of the major policy and economic challenges the next president will face,” argues AAAS CEO Alan Leshner. “We feel that a presidential debate on science would be helpful to America’s national political dialogue.”

AAAS is describing Science Debate 2008 as a citizen initiative led by “largely nonscientists.” Over the past month, however, many researchers have now endorsed the initiative, which has garnered some 10,000 supporters. If you want to join the groundswell, go to the URL linked here.

If you’re not the joiner type, that’s okay. You’ve already done one useful thing, by reading about science developments at this site and elsewhere.

But that isn’t really enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m about as apolitical as they come. But playing ostrich is no solution to the growing science illiteracy and politicization of research that’s been sweeping this nation — including the hallowed halls of Congress (remember that comment by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), last year, regarding periodic up-ticks in global temperature — such as at the end of the Paleocene, 55 million years ago: “We don’t know what those other [climate-warming] cycles were caused by in the past. Could be dinosaur flatulence…”)

If advocacy is anathema to you, no prob. Take another tack: Educate.

You wouldn’t let a child leave a science classroom espousing bunk — such as that dinosaurs and humans coexisted a few thousand years ago — without attempting to correct his or her misunderstanding of paleontological and anthropological history. I don’t think we should let those who set the agenda for federal economic policies and investments wallow in ignorance either.

One idea: Invite a politician and his or her political challengers to meet with the local chapter of your professional society. Find out where each politico stands on research and education issues, and if it’s intellectually cock-eyed, politely set them straight. Consider it education and a public service.

Of course, it always helps to make sure you’ve got your facts and figures straight beforehand. One good source: The National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2008. For perspective on the integral link between research and the U.S. economy, check out the National Academy of Science report Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.

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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