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  Will the candidates talk science?
Web Extra Friday, January 18, 2008

Will the candidates talk science?

A grassroots movement to put scientific issues squarely in the center of the presidential race by organizing a presidential debate on science and technology is gaining steam among both scientists and nonscientists — but whether the presidential candidates will ultimately answer the call is still unclear.

As science and technology play an increasingly important role in policy decisions, presidential candidates should give voters the chance to hear their viewpoints on issues such as climate change, renewable energy and stem cell research, says Matthew Chapman, author of two nonfiction books on evolution and creationism and a screenwriter whose films include Runaway Jury. In a Nov. 15 article for The Huffington Post, Chapman posed the question: "As citizens, we have a right to know: Do the people seeking the most powerful job on Earth understand the world?"

“Watching the debates that have been televised so far, there were a number of incredibly important issues that weren’t being discussed at all ... and they are all so vital that they really deserved a debate all in themselves.” -Matthew Chapman

About three months ago, Chapman says, he and a small group of scientists, congressmen and journalists decided to take action, organizing a nonpartisan, grassroots effort to push the candidates to do just that. At the Web site www.sciencedebate2008.com, supporters of the idea can add their name to a rapidly growing list of petitioners.

In watching the debates that have been televised so far, Chapman says it occurred to him that there were a number of “incredibly important issues” that weren’t being discussed. “And that the kinds of things we’re talking about … are all so vital that they really deserved a debate all in themselves,” he says.

The list of petitioners who have already added their names to the site contains some of the most influential names in science, including academics, research scientists, heads of scientific agencies and societies, Nobel Laureates, editors-in-chief of scientific magazines and CEOs of major corporations.

Politicians from both sides of the fence have also signed on, including Reps. Rush Holt, D-N.J., and Vern Ehlers, R-Mich., both of whom are physicists. On Jan. 16, the chair of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology, Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., added his support, citing the need for a “better equipped and skilled workforce” than other nations, which he said requires a focus on science, education and innovation — also the goal of the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which was signed into law in August (see Geotimes, November 2007). “The debate on science and technology in this country must grow to be part of a national discussion on our future—and a presidential debate [on the] subject would put it front and center,” Gordon said.

“We have an extraordinary list of people,” Chapman says. Almost 10,000 names have been added to the petition since the Web site went up seven weeks ago, he says, and many of them are nonscientists — “a lot of just regular people who have the best interests of America in mind.” Those interests include not only concerns about the environment and health issues, but also an economic component, he adds. “How one invests in innovation and technology in this country will determine how well the economy does. It’s a very broad debate and appeals to people across the political spectrum.”

However, whether even that list will translate into an actual debate is unclear. The candidates are aware of the effort, Chapman says, but the real push for their involvement won’t begin until the majority of the primaries are over on Feb. 5, and until the organizers secure funding and a venue for the debate, which they hope to hold in April or May, before the parties’ conventions.

One potential roadblock is that the Commission on Presidential Debates has already scheduled three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, announcing the sites, dates and formats for those events back in November, and may not agree to sponsor another. However, Chapman says, “we believe that this is sufficiently important to ask for another debate.”

Additionally, science issues, although more front-page than ever, must still jockey with the Iraq war, the economy and healthcare for voters’ interest. The three already organized presidential debates will focus on domestic and foreign policy, as well as a town-hall style debate where voters can introduce issues.

But the most significant obstacle may be the candidates’ own reluctance to discuss difficult scientific topics in a risky debate format. Sciencedebate2008’s organizers, however, assert that the purpose of the debate is not a scientific quiz, but to find out the general policies that the candidates have on science and technology issues — and that the public really wants to know where they stand.

“I think that the hunger for this is enormous,” Chapman says. “I think people really want this to happen, and I think it’s really obvious why it should happen.”

Carolyn Gramling

Links:
The Huffington Post 
Sciencedebate2008 Web site 
Announcement by U.S. Chair of House Committee on Science and Technology Bart Gordon 
Science Legislation: America COMPETES, Geeks Rule and Everybody Wins,” Geotimes, November 2007 
Commission on Presidential Debates 

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