Quadrennial Science in Elections Efforts

Science Effort Again Seeks to Boost Issues in Presidential Campaign

It’s again an uphill fight, but a worthwhile one, and somebody’s got to undertake it: a number of science groups are again backing efforts to see science issues, including climate science, gain more traction in this year’s presidential campaigns.


Don’t bet the house now on which contentious issue the presidential candidates are most likely to substantively engage — climate and energy … or gun control.

Odds are that neither will long command center stage in press conferences or debates involving President Obama or Republican candidate Mitt Romney … at least so long as the candidates and their surrogates get their way. And so long as political reporters don’t insist on getting real answers.

So the quadrennial presidential election season again includes an effort by science interests to give science-related policy issues a bigger role. It’s far from a slam-dunk, but ScienceDebate.org, calling itself an “independent citizens’ initiative,” again is making the effort. With its “Top American Science Questions,” it hopes for a better outcome in 2012 than it had in 2008, when both the Democratic and Republican campaigns by and large shunned efforts that they even seriously consider a debate focusing on science.

This year, the “key questions” component is proceeding somewhat separately from the notion of a science-focused debate or forum, but the group’s organizer says he has separately asked both candidates to participate in such an exchange.

Headed by author and citizen science activist Shawn Lawrence Otto, author of “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America,” the effort this year lists Scientific American as its “media partner.” The 14 science questions include at least five directly or indirectly relevant to climate change and related energy issues. Those questions:

Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change — and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?

Energy. Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

Ocean Health. Scientists estimate that 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are in serious decline, habitats like coral reefs are threatened, and large areas of ocean and coastlines are polluted. What role should the federal government play domestically and through foreign policy to protect the environmental health and economic vitality of the oceans?

Science in Public Policy. We live in an era when science and technology affect every aspect of life and society, and so must be included in well-informed public policy decisions. How will you ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are fully informed by the best available scientific and technical information, and that the public is able to evaluate the basis of these policy decisions?

Critical Natural Resources. Supply shortages of natural resources affect economic growth, quality of life, and national security; for example China currently produces 97% of rare earth elements needed for advanced electronics. What steps should the federal government take to ensure the quality and availability of critical natural resources?

A ‘No-Brainer’ … But Also an Inevitable Non-Starter?

The organization says on its website that it arrived at its 14 questions through consultations with groups representing “thousands of scientists, engineers, and concerned citizens” asked to submit what they felt were “the most important science questions facing the nation that the candidates for president should be debating on the campaign trail.” It lists at its site several groups it calls “cosponsors” — the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Academies of Science, and the Council on Competitiveness, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit describing itself as consisting of “CEOs, university presidents, and labor leaders working to ensure U.S. prosperity.”

In addition to AAAS, ScienceDebate.org lists science organizations it worked with to “refine the questions and arrive at a universal consensus on what the most important science policy questions” for the campaigns. That list includes, among others, the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Physics, the National Academy and its medicine and engineering components, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The site does not indicate roles the supporting organizations may have played, or how active each actually was. But Otto said in a phone interview that all the groups named, including the National Academy, were “actively involved” throughout the entire long process of refining the questions.

While ScienceDebate.org strives to maintain its political independence and impartiality, many Republican and conservative political operatives appear to feel that such “pro-science” efforts are supported primarily by progressives, liberals, and those inclined to be more supportive of Democratic candidates. Initial indications indeed are that Obama campaign apparatus — while not yet having agreed to the science debate idea — has been somewhat more responsive, indicating that it does plan to address the questions posed by ScienceDebate.org.  Otto said the Romney campaign has indicated only that it is still deciding which sets of campaign questions, from among a large number of groups submitting them, it may actually address.

“This should be a no-brainer at this point,” ScienceDebate.org’s Otto said, rejecting any notion that non-scientist candidates need to shy away from science issues. “Candidates debate the economy even though they are not economists, foreign policy even though they’re not diplomats or generals, and faith and values even though they are not priests or pastors,” he said in a release announcing the effort. “They should also be debating the big science questions that have equal or greater impact on voters’ lives.”

A valid point or not, getting science — and climate and energy science issues — a prominent place in the presidential campaign is again unlikely to be an easy-lift. The group said it has asked both candidates to address its 14 questions by mid-August, and Otto said he hopes they will do so and then further distribute those responses.

Worth watching for their responses, if any. The clock is running.

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