Let’s have a presidential debate on science

Can any of the candidates lead America back to the head of the class in science and technology?

Topics: Science

In the past few weeks, marine biologists working in Papua, New Guinea, spoke about the need to ban fishing in certain parts of the ocean hard hit by rising temperatures. Meanwhile, in the American Midwest, stem cell pioneer James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison announced what may be a Nobel Prize-worthy discovery: how to turn ordinary skin cells into stem cells.

These two events — separated by some 10,000 miles — are nonetheless intimately related. Both highlight the single most constant theme of life in the past decades: how science and technology are changing our world and have become inseparable from politics.

This juncture of science and politics is the major concern of a new initiative called ScienceDebate2008. Nearly all of America’s major policy issues, ranging from global warming to stem cell research, energy policy to pandemic-disease control, data privacy to healthcare, national defense to ocean management — or a manned mission to Mars — have science and technology at their heart, providing considerable dangers and immense opportunities. Successfully grappling with these issues, and more like them, will require policymakers to have vision and a more thorough understanding of science than ever before.

This presents us with a growing problem in our national political dialogue. We have come to take the scientific and technological transformation of our lives for granted — the iPhone and Wii weren’t even words in the common lexicon 18 months ago. Four years ago if someone asked you to “Google it” you might have taken offense, and five years ago the idea of a hybrid car was fringe. Could something like that actually work? Yes, as it turns out, pretty well.

But on the policy side of this cultural change, we haven’t kept up. We have been asleep at the wheel when it comes to the expectations we place on our elected officials; we have allowed the wrong issues to sidetrack political debates. No matter one’s political flavor, this is a matter of increasing practical concern. In a science-influenced world, we need and deserve leaders who understand the basic rules of the game, or we’re going to get shut out.

Today nations like India and China are producing a higher percentage of scientists and engineers than the United States is. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” outlines educational and demographic trends which suggest that the United States may founder in the global economy without a concerted effort toward continuing technological innovation and competitiveness. To get there we need to sharply step up our investments in our higher education research institutions, many of which are state universities. But with no-new-tax pledges and recurring budget crises in several of the states, the stage is set for old-model policymaking debates over taxes and ideology to derail investment in higher education, even as we battle in a global economy where all the rules have changed.

And the states may have a limited ability to address the issue on their own. The recent Urban Institute study “Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality, and Workforce Demand” suggests that it’s not just our graduation rates or educational investments that are the problem. College graduates in science and technology are, increasingly, not taking the available opening-level jobs in their fields, jobs that are being filled by more eager immigrants. This trend has received publicity in the unskilled laborer workforce — which has driven much of the illegal immigration debate — but it’s also present in our high-tech workforce.

Is the next generation of young Americans too lazy to work? Or is something else afoot? The study suggests that downward wage pressure is one factor. But there are others. Can employees expect job stability in a corporate culture that continues to move science and engineering jobs overseas? Will they have the opportunity to engage in big challenges and earn the respect of their peers and our culture?

Popular and political anti-intellectualism is taking a toll on our national esprit de corps and on our economic security. In a time when we lack major national science and engineering policy goals, and when it’s not of status to be a scientist, or a teacher, or a laborer, who is going to want to do it? And yet intellectual candidates for public office are seldom perceived as cool; in the high school parlance of our national politics, they’re not “the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with.”

How can we transform our state and federal governments — indeed our national culture — to succeed in a world where science and technology set the new rules of the game? It starts with the quality of the “deciders” we put in office. We need to elect leaders who are able to understand and apply the best science, who will talk about science in public forums, who will prioritize it in policy decisions, and who will make science education a state and national priority before we are outclassed.

We do this in business. We should do it in our national politics. And the way to do it without one candidate sticking out his or her neck intellectually and risking the loss of beer-slinging street cred is to level the playing field for everyone: Let’s have a presidential debate about science and technology.

In the two weeks since the beginning of this initiative, it has taken off like a wildfire. More than 60 distinguished scientists and university presidents have joined a broad coalition of elected leaders, journalists, business leaders, writers and others in a call for the presidential candidates to participate in a debate dedicated science and technology policy issues like climate change, stem cell research, renewable energy, bioethics, the human genome and a dozen others.

The signers include Nobel laureates like Steve Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Harold Varmus, past director of the National Institutes of Health; university presidents like Princeton’s Shirley Tilghman; congresspersons of either stripe, like Betty McCollum and Wayne Gilchrest; former presidential science committee advisor Richard Garwin and science advisors John Gibbons and Neal Lane; science journalists like the editor in chief of Science, Donald Kennedy, and the editor in chief of Scientific American, John Rennie; business leaders like Hyatt Development CEO Nicholas Pritzker; and the current and several past presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This flood of passionate endorsements by so many distinguished names in such a short period of time suggests a hunger in the body politic, a deep-seated concern among leaders across a broad swath of our society that is not currently being addressed in our electoral process.

We have all become painfully aware in recent years that it is not only irresponsible but dangerous and expensive to distort and repackage scientific conclusions for political purposes. Our national security and economic prosperity depend upon leadership that looks the truth squarely in the eye, and makes decisions informed by the facts and the best scientific counsel available. Only in this way will we remain viable in a fiercely competitive global marketplace.

This year more than ever, America needs and deserves to hear from the candidates for president about where they stand on science-related issues and the role science will play in their policymaking process as we tackle our many challenges in a world being utterly transformed by the explosion of science and technology.

Shawn Lawrence Otto is a member of the steering committee of the nonpartisan ScienceDebate2008.com. He wrote and co-produced the Oscar-nominated movie "House of Sand and Fog," and won the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's award for best science screenplay for "Hubble." This article is simultaneously being published at Minnpost.com.

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