Late last year, as the presidential primary campaigns heated up, a grass-roots group of scientists and citizens addressed the candidates: “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.” Before long, Science Debate 2008, as the group called itself, had become the most powerful voice advocating for science in the race, backed by nearly 40,000 scientists, business leaders, educators, journalists (myself included) and politicians.
The response from the candidates? Silence. Before April’s Pennsylvania primary, the organization invited the contenders to share their positions at a Philadelphia event. Only one candidate even bothered to send regrets.
It’s sad to see the people vying to lead the free world run from the chance to talk about stem cells, climate change and the other issues that will transform our lives during their terms. It’s especially sad considering that a Harris poll found that 85 percent of Americans wanted such a debate.
Fortunately, Science Debate 2008 didn’t give up. In late June, it sent both nominees a list of 14 questions on topics ranging from innovation to ocean health. And this time, the candidates wrote back, submitting impressively detailed responses. I strongly encourage you to read it all at sciencedebate2008.com. (Our own dive into the essential scientific issues facing the next president begins at popsci.com/election.)
The Bush administration has been notable for its inclination to ignore, distort, or suppress the findings of leading scientists. The willingness of these candidates to engage the issues, along with their explicit assurances on a question labeled “Scientific Integrity,” give me hope that we’ll soon see a reversal of that approach to science, regardless of who wins the election next month.