The great science debate

Science doesn’t usually get much attention during election season. This year, though, things might be a little different: A grassroots coalition of researchers is calling for the presidential candidates to hold a televised debate dedicated to environmental and scientific issues.

The hope is that the event, tentatively scheduled for mid-April, will give voters a chance to hear the candidates’ views on issues ranging from climate change to funding for energy research. And while none of the candidates have yet confirmed that they’ll attend the debate, the campaign’s online petition is getting widespread support: Some 12,000 scientists and business leaders - including 25 Nobel laureates - have signed up; the campaign has also won the backing of organizations ranging from the National Academy of Sciences to Friends of the Earth.


Support for the plan isn’t universal; writing last week in Nature, David Goldston argued that the debate would serve only to muddy the waters. “At a ‘science debate’, candidates will try to claim that their position is the one supported by ‘science’, and the very structure of the debate will send voters the faulty message that these are questions that the natural sciences can resolve,” he writes. “Framing questions of economics, ethics, and other aspects of policy as ‘science issues’ does no favor for either science or politics.”

Goldston’s key point - that science and policy aren’t interchangeable - is valid, of course. Science doesn’t have all the answers, and scientists who insert themselves too directly into the political process risk losing their independence and impartiality. But while science shouldn’t dictate policy directly, there are many, many areas in which our policymakers should allow themselves to be informed by the scientific consensus.

After eight years of the Bush administration, we know only too well the cost of having a president who’s ready to put his own convictions ahead of the scientific evidence. With his ideologically motivated political appointments, his willful erosion of environmental checks and balances, and his grotesque and cynical attempts to derail the battle against global warming, President Bush has demonstrated all too clearly the catastrophic consequences of decoupling science and public policy.

If we want to avoid a repeat performance, we need to make sure that we carry out due diligence before appointing Bush’s successor. Scientific literacy ought to be a precondition for America’s president; the science debate won’t guarantee that, but it’ll be a big step in the right direction.

* Plenty Magazine is a supporter of the Science Debate 2008 campaign. You can find out more, and add your signature, here.


Anyone who thinks that we have a shortage of scientists and engineers in this country should read the reports "Into the Eye of the Storm" by Lowell and Salzman, "Do We Need More Scientists?" by Teitelbaum, and "Is There Shortage of Scientists and Engineers? How Would We Know?" by Butz et al. We do not have a shortage; we have an oversupply problem, which is the direct (and completely predictable) consequence of our government's skilled-labor immigration policies since 1990 and is destroying the science and engineering professions for American citizens.