Obama, Romney Answer Questions on Science Policy Through Science Debate

September 4, 2012 | 12:31 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

Just a few moments ago, Science Debate released responses from President Obama and Governor Romney to fourteen questions related to science and technology policy that are well worth a read. Each presidential candidate was given the opportunity to articulate his science and technology priorities and how he would use science to inform public policy decisions.

Securing responses to these questions is yet another achievement for Science Debate, a great grassroots (and, incredibly, volunteer run) coalition that I’ve been happy to be a part of since its inception during the last presidential election. Back then, we made a simple proposal with a lofty goal: the candidates should have a science policy debate.

What’s a Science Debate?

The initial reaction to this idea was surprise. Were we planning on quizzing the candidates about the achievements of Nicola Tesla, or asking them to recite the first 50 digits of pi? No, we replied. We were frustrated with lack of attention that science was receiving from the presidential candidates—despite the fact that science was critical to so many of the challenges the nation faced—and wanted each candidate to discuss the role that science would play in his or her presidency.

Simply proposing a debate meant that people started talking about science in the context of policy. Many thousands of Americans, including prominent scientists like current presidential science advisor Dr. John Holdren, endorsed the effort. Newspapers editorialized on the need for more consideration of science by the candidates and covered the new movement; all told, Science Debate made more than a million media impressions during the election cycle.

And while no debate was held, Senators Obama and McCain responded to 14 questions sourced from more than three thousand. These questions covered a broad range of topics, including how they would work to continue America’s status as world leader in innovation, how they would deal with the challenge of climate change, and what steps they would take to prevent the censorship and distortion of government scientific information.

This marked the first time that both McCain and Obama publicly addressed political interference in federal government science and pledged to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking. This ultimately encouraged Mr. Obama to pledge to “restore science to its rightful place” in his inaugural address and led to the president’s scientific integrity memorandum and subsequent agency scientific integrity policies. The pledges that candidates make on the campaign trail are critical, as they provide a benchmark for the public and organizations like UCS to hold them accountable once in office.

Science Debate in 2012

This time around, Science Debate is again pushing for a presidential debate on science policy. And while the ultimate prize has not yet been won, we have again used the Science Debate platform to convince the candidates to address an updated set of questions. Earlier in the year, Science Debate put out a call for questions. UCS and a number of other scientific organizations helped whittle them down to a set of fourteen.

ScienceDebate continues to be a success simply because it elevates an important conversation about how candidates plan to utilize science in governing. And public dialogue about scientific issues is now more important than ever. As Dr. Michael Lubell of the American Physical Society, recently said on NPR’s Science Friday:

“Science used to be an inside-the-Beltway issue. You could get policies promulgated simply by dealing with people in government. What we’re finding today…is that the lack of trust in government requires a dialogue with the public…Without the public dialogue I don’t think in today’s world that…we’re going to see very much action on very many things.”

As the presidential campaign’s signal-to-noise ratio gets worse and worse, efforts to elicit responses from the candidates on substantive issues are ever more necessary. Science Debate’s contributions to the public discussion will reap rewards over the next four years—as long as we continue to be there to press the issues forward.