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How about a candidate debate on science?

ASK THIS | January 30, 2008

Leaders in various fields, not just the sciences, back such a debate. They envision holding it in April, and having both Republican and Democratic candidates--whoever is left at that point--share the stage.

By Joseph A. Davis, Ph.D.

As political writers key in on hope, change, electability, presidentiality, and mud-wrestling as themes for coverage, the leaders of the U.S. science community are inviting candidates to debate an issue that may shape how the nation fares in the 21st century.

"Sciencedebate 2008" – still awaiting candidate participation – has garnered endorsements from former White House science advisers, university presidents, congressional leaders, Nobel laureates, journalists and bloggers, editors of major science journals, business and religious leaders, and the leaders of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academy of Sciences, among others.

The full list is impressive. It includes editors and writers for major science journals like Nature, Science, Scientific American, Chemical & Engineering News, Issues in Science and Technology, Skeptical Inquirer, The Scientist, Seed Media Group, Popular Science, and Science Illustrated.

The debate, if it happens, may not just be about climate change and genetic engineering, but about U.S. global economic competitiveness. The Business Roundtable estimated in 2005 that by 2010, some 90 percent of the world's engineers would be living in Asia. The Roundtable is urging government action to restore the nation's competitive edge.

While Sciencedebate 2008 has proposed the idea informally to some of the candidates, none so far have officially said yes. Any debate forcing candidates to take positions on substantive issues of how to run the country may often be perceived by candidates as a big risk. Spokesman Shawn Lawrence Otto says  there were "some expressions of interest.".

Otto said candidates need not fear "a science quiz on string theory." More likely would be questions on the budgets of major federal science agencies, like the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or the National Institutes of Health.

Tentatively, planners hope to hold the event by mid-April of 2008 – a time by which nominees may have been selected or the field narrowed to no more than two or three candidates in each party. That would simplify the job of putting candidates from both parties on a single stage, as they envision doing.

Planners are inviting the general public to submit questions for the debate and have already received several thousand. Final questions would be selected by a nonpartisan panel that will include scientists. The event itself would be refereed by a single moderator, possibly a science journalist, with a nonpartisan panel of experts as a resource to draw on during the event itself for fact-checking and follow-up. They expect little trouble getting air time, given that several cable channels are now devoted primarily to science.


(Questions for reporters, debate moderators, and voters to ask the candidates)

1. How would your administration change things to ensure the integrity and independence of science funded by the federal government? Is the White House doing a good job of that right now?

2. How would your administration use science to face uncertainty and risk: where should the burden of proof be when regulators address public health and safety issues?

3. What will you do to improve science education in the U.S. and increase the number of science and engineering degrees from U.S. educational institutions?

4. Do you consider the science behind man-made global warming solid enough to warrant serious action by the U.S.? Do you consider global warming a science debate or a policy debate?

5. Would you change federal strategies and actions for addressing emerging diseases and global pandemics? How? How should these efforts dovetail with federal efforts to protect the public from bio-terrorism? Where should the funding priorities be?

6. What is the right federal strategy on space exploration? How should it be staged and funded in relation to other federally supported research? How should it be integrated with other federally supported research? Should the space program be focused more on studying the Earth than on exploring space beyond the Earth?

7. What safeguards for human health and the environment should be observed as science pushes forward in fields like genetic engineering, cloning, and nanotechnology? Has the federal government done enough here?

8. What changes would you make in the regulation of new and existing drugs? Do our patent laws and drug regulations have the right balance between encouraging research and protecting the public?

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