In the last few months we have learned a lot about John McCain’s heroic service and travails as a prisoner of war, about Barack Obama’s history on the streets of Chicago, and we are beginning to learn — with some apprehension — about what’s under Sarah Palin’s carpet. We’ve been titillated with various political skullduggery and shootouts. We’ve seen endless loops of the the American flag flying majestically in slo-mo in the background.
But there remains the question: what will these people actually do if elected President? And, of special interest, both because it is critically important in the emerging age of technology and global transformation, as well as because we have not yet heard jack about it in the swirling 24/7 media blitz: where do the two Presidential candidates stand on the role of science in America? As organizers of an event at the Franklin Institute earlier this year emphasized:
“Every Nobel laureate we’ve spoken to has said the same thing: the next four to eight years are critical and the next president has the potential to determine the future health of all life on earth.
On March 11, Bill Gates testified before Congress saying that on the economic front, America “is at a crossroads” and will almost certainly become a second-rate economy without massive attention to science & engineering in schools and changes in government policies toward innovation.”
You might be forgiven, considering the tenor that political debates tend to take in this country, for being pessimistic about the prospects of this issue getting a hearing above the background noise. Yet, against the odds, a dedicated team has been persistent enough to get through to the candidates and score some answers, which were posted three days ago at ScienceDebate2008.
Recognizing both the growing scientific complexity of the challenges that we face, and no doubt also the abysmal record of the current administration in dealing with that reality, the architects of this effort started from the following premise:
“Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues.”
Then they posed 14 questions to the candidates and let them speak for themselves. You can read the answers in entirety here. On reading these I was struck forcefully by the sense that the issues being discussed here are not “just” scientific issues, they are the fundamental issues of our time and of this election. This is a wake-up call about the centrality of science and technology to modern global civilization, what is at stake, and how far the USA has fallen behind as a result of the Bush administration’s war on science. The good news is that — if these answers are an indication — both candidates seem to “get it”, and both will be miles ahead of the current administration (which, admittedly, is not saying much). They will surely have different approaches to addressing the challenges but, for example, both recognize the urgency of man-made climate change and support substantive measures to curb warming.
Will this make a difference? Do American voters actually care about science? At least in a generic sense, it appears that they do. According to a poll by Lake Research Partners conducted for Scientists and Engineers for America: