The Intersection

The Boston Debate

Saturday I reported that AAAS had pulled together an unexpected preliminary presidential science debate at the annual meeting. The event was organized by the Association of American Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and as promised, here’s what went down in Boston…

i-d369dab167756b2dc39d266cff99ecd0-7.jpg

Representatives of the major Democratic candidates accepted invitations to participate in a discussion of science in the next administration. Senator McCain’s campaign sent their regrets that they could not attend on such short notice, while Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul did not respond to the invitation at all.

From Clinton’s camp came Thomas Kalil, Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Science and Technology at UC California Berkeley. He’s also former Deputy Assistant to President Clinton for Technology and Economic Policy and former Deputy Director of the White House National Economic Council. Obama sent Alec Ross, a social entrepreneur for One Economy Corporation which is a non-profit working to bring new technology to poor communities. I immediately noticed although Ross is the younger, more charismatic speaker, it’s obvious he lacks experience and familiarization with science policy.

The scene is set. Details on the debate after the jump…

The good news is that both reps highlighted large increases in funding for basic research. Unfortunately, neither provided any practical blueprint for how this might be accomplished. Actually, at times the forum reminded me of a Jr. High School campaign speech–chock full of promises for more soda machines and longer lunch periods with no sense of how to follow through. Both sides criticized the Bush administration, but made little distinction between their science policy platforms.

On Clinton’s behalf, Kalil arrived with prepared slides and assured us she plans to restore the role of the president’s science advisor and bring back the Office of Technology Assessment. He cited Hillary’s demonstrated commitment to science and her intention to double research spending over the next decade to benefit NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Energy, and the Pentagon.

Curiously, Obama’s side called for the same increase in only 5 years without naming which agencies would benefit or how it could be accomplished. Ross generalized his responses to moderator Claudia Dreifus‘ questions while providing few real insights on how the IL Senator would achieve stated objectives. Sure, $150 billion in new funds over ten years to advance biofuels, hybrid cars, and the national power grid sound great, but I was unimpressed as he danced around follow-up questions on specifics. And then there was Ross’ repeated nonresponse to questions that we visit Obama’s website. Still, it’s worth noting that he suggested scientists will benefit from changing how we approach congressional offices and I wholeheartedly agree. However, he said to ‘stop being polite,’ whereas I believe it’s more about learning to communicate more effectively to staffers about the significance of our work.

Yes, Obama’s side was more handsome and articulate, but if a debate must be declared ‘won and lost,’ Clinton’s rep was the obvious victor. That said, keep in mind the bar has been set quite low. Both candidates now have the opportunity to provide us with a more complete vision of what they intend to do if elected and as an undecided voter, I’m listening for the plan of action beyond stated good intentions.

But despite being underwhelmed by the reps, it’s encouraging that campaigns have visibly demonstrated they want to talk about science and technology on the campaign trail because science can no longer be relegated to the status of a special interest group. The American public deserves to find out how our next leader will approach the issues that will impact every one of us in a myriad of ways. Saturday was the start of a real discussion we must continue to press for answers. As I reported in my last post, Claudia asked each representative whether their candidate will be at ScienceDebate2008 on April 18th in Philidelphia. ‘Time will tell,’ replied Kalil… to which Obama’s rep reported it’s being very seriously considered, followed with an enthusiastic, ‘I endorse it!

So contact the campaigns and tell them you want the presidential candidates to attend ScienceDebate2008! After all, this is our planet. Our home. Our health. Our families. Our economy. And it’s imperative we make our voices heard–now more than ever–for the sake of our future.

i-659d58ac46b8b3617960211db0689913-19.jpg

Hopefully, we’ll have video available soon. For more on the Boston debate, check out Congressional Quarterly, Science Magazine online, AFP, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

i-8808a1a70f2b4c43ecb40c250ca68be3-sciencedebate2008.jpg

Comments

  1. #1 Caledonian
    February 18, 2008

    and bring back the Office of Technology Assessment.

    The President has no authority to do that. Only Congress does.

    How exactly did Hillary’s stand-in say bringing back the OTA would be accomplished?

  2. #2 John S. Wilkins
    February 18, 2008

    Isn’t the OTA still in existence, but underfunded? I’m sure Clinton or Obama and Pelosi could work up something, but the crucial thing is to statutorily ensure it is not vulnerable to partisan interference, as the judiciary is supposed not to be. What the law and the constitution is to the judiciary, the facts are to the OTA.

  3. #3 Chris Rowan
    February 18, 2008

    Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul did not respond to the invitation at all.

    Hah! Take note, Paulbots…

  4. #4 Caledonian
    February 18, 2008

    In short: no, it is not still in existence. All of the full-time staff were let go, with only enough money provided to complete the closing out of the department.

    Even if something were opened with the same name, ensuring objectivity and independence is another matter entirely.

  5. #5 Matthew C. Nisbet
    February 18, 2008

    I see advantages and disadvantages to staging the ScienceDebate. I think the Nature editorial last week and the column at Nature by David Goldston accurately cover the problems, but I would add a few more.

    –>If you look at the research on audience effects from Presidential debates, you see that like most communication in a political context, audiences come away reinterpreting everything through their partisan lens.

    –>In other words, if the debate actually happens, there is the strongest invitation to date for the American audience to think about science in partisan terms. Moreover, science loses control of its own message to the candidates, their surrogates, journalists, and pundits. This can lead to either harmful misinformation being spread or further re-framing of science in ideological terms.

    –>Debates are also overwhelmingly covered in terms of “who wins,” with style trumping substance. So even if a candidate such as Clinton really knows her science policy, she will also be counseled by advisers not to “pull a Gore” and look like a know-it-all. Any discussion therefore will be dumbed down.

    –>Moreover, if the debate actually happens, and only involves Clinton and Obama, because of Clinton’s standing in the polls, she is going to use every opening to go on the offensive with negative attacks against Obama. The PA primary will essentially be Clinton’s last stand, and negativity will the theme.

    –>Bottom line, if you your goal is to engage the public, past research suggests that staging a presidential debate about science under any conditions is a really bad idea.

    –>The irony, however, is that the best case scenario is that the debate ends up not happening. In other words, polarizing audience effects are avoided, science receives a modest bump on the campaign agenda with perhaps a few more questions asked at the debates, and science is mobilized around a common goal.

    –>The question that arises out of that mobilization however is the following:

    Just what exactly is the new role for scientists and journalists in communicating with the public and being actively involved in policy? What do the realities of politics and the media environment suggest is the new mode for scientists and journalists as honest brokers?

    Just some thoughts I have had for some time, crystallized by some conversations I had this weekend at AAAS. I will probably be writing something up about this.

    Best,
    Matt

  6. #6 Robertd
    February 18, 2008

    From What I understand Ron Paul was not invited because he was polling below the standard. I am sure he would attend if asked.

  7. #7 Adam
    February 18, 2008

    Robertd-
    He was invited. This was a separate event from ScienceDebate2008 and he ignored the invitation to send a representative to the most influential science conference there is. This nonresponse to science speaks volumes to voters like me.

  8. #8 Anand Sarwate
    February 18, 2008

    The sort of libertarian position would be that the government should get out of the business of funding science, since that is more big government, so it seems entirely consistent that Ron Paul wouldn’t show up. At least, that’s what his supporters that I’ve met say. This is also trotted out to excuse his lack of belief in the “theory” of evolution — why should the President know science if the government isn’t funding it?

  9. #9 SLC
    February 18, 2008

    Re Matthew Nisbet

    A quote from Prof. Larry Moran is apropos here. “It’s about time we realized that Matt Nisbet is not a friend of science. He needs to be strongly opposed before he succeeds in fooling any more naive scientists who might fall for his silly nonsense.”

    The fact that Prof. Nisbet is opposed to the proposed debate is the strongest possible endorsement of it. Prof. Nisbet is a phoney who organized a session at the AAAS conference on communicating science in a religious America which was an assault on the so called “new atheists” without bothering to invite one of these “new atheists” to sit on the panel. The powers that be at the AAAS should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this phoney to get away with it.

  10. #10 Linda
    February 18, 2008

    Ron Paul is supposedly scaling back his bid for the Presidency in order to run for re-election to Congress.
    As for Mike Huchabee, I believe he has been in the Cayman Islands earning a speakers fee.
    In my opinion, the Boston meet is a good beginning, and hopefully will expand to the April 18 Sciencedebate 2008.

  11. #11 PZ Myers
    February 18, 2008

    Let’s ask the obvious question: what’s wrong with making science a partisan issue? When one party is driving hard from a starting point of anti-science (or, at best, oblivious ignorance about science) towards rank lunacy (i.e., Mike Huckabee), I think we’re making a huge mistake in NOT making it a partisan issue, in pretending that Republican policies have any credibility at all as far as science goes. It’s as if we’re afraid of hurting the feelings of creationist kooks.

    The only reservation I have is that we don’t want to hand the issue to the Democrats by default — they’re pretty lackluster on science issues themselves, and I’d like to make them work for scientists’ support.

  12. #12 bioephemera
    February 18, 2008

    SLC, don’t be silly. Matt Nisbet executed no such assault – I was present for the session and the suggestion is ridiculous. In fact, he was criticized by an audience member for not inviting more overtly religious scientists. The eye of the beholder. . . Anyway, I disagree with him about Sciencedebate 2008 because I think science is already a partisan issue – especially health-related issues. PZ is right; it would have been nice if the Dem’s teams had worked harder for our support. It smarts to give them props for just showing up, which is basically what they did.

  13. #13 Carol
    February 19, 2008

    Matthew Nisbet’s argument lacks logic. There’s no question Science Debate 2008 would be a good idea. It’s an incredible idea thanks to Chris and Sheril and their group. In my opinion, his comment, and his follow up blog “frame” him as a bitter child proclaiming nonsense for the sake of having an argument. Shame on him. Grow up young man!

  14. #14 SLC
    February 19, 2008

    Re bioephemera

    “In fact, he was criticized by an audience member for not inviting more overtly religious scientists”

    Does Ms. bioephemera claim that Prof. Ken Miller is not sufficiently religious?

  15. #15 Tony Jeremiah
    February 19, 2008

    –>If you look at the research on audience effects from Presidential debates, you see that like most communication in a political context, audiences come away reinterpreting everything through their partisan lens.

    More generally, research in social psychology has shown that when an audience is highly involved/motivated by a particular topic, they tend to be persuaded by the strength of arguments; however, if they are not motivated by the topic, they are persuaded by the credibility of the person talking (which supports the partisan lens hypothesis). To reduce this partisan effect, the debate would have to contain science content that is motivating to a non-expert audience.

    –>In other words, if the debate actually happens, there is the strongest invitation to date for the American audience to think about science in partisan terms. Moreover, science loses control of its own message to the candidates, their surrogates, journalists, and pundits. This can lead to either harmful misinformation being spread or further re-framing of science in ideological terms.

    The solution would be to fram science topics that won’t trigger the partisan effect. That is likely not an easy task, but would likely involve relating science to something that everyone can relate to (How does science impact the health of a country, as an example)

    –>Debates are also overwhelmingly covered in terms of “who wins,” with style trumping substance. So even if a candidate such as Clinton really knows her science policy, she will also be counseled by advisers not to “pull a Gore” and look like a know-it-all. Any discussion therefore will be dumbed down.

    And again, there’s the issue of whether an audience pays attention to style or substance as it concerns intrinsic interest in the topic being discussed

    –>Moreover, if the debate actually happens, and only involves Clinton and Obama, because of Clinton’s standing in the polls, she is going to use every opening to go on the offensive with negative attacks against Obama. The PA primary will essentially be Clinton’s last stand, and negativity will the theme.

    Apparently, that’s already happen given the latest tactic of saying that Obama plagiarizes speeches.

    –>Bottom line, if you your goal is to engage the public, past research suggests that staging a presidential debate about science under any conditions is a really bad idea.

    If planned carefully (and I’m not sure a few months work constitutes careful planning–I’ve taken longer to prepare courses I’ve never taught before), it’s not a bad idea.

    –>The irony, however, is that the best case scenario is that the debate ends up not happening. In other words, polarizing audience effects are avoided, science receives a modest bump on the campaign agenda with perhaps a few more questions asked at the debates, and science is mobilized around a common goal.

    It may be a wiser method to have something like a non media debate in which the only people watching are relevant scientists. That should deal with the issue of (1) not simplifying the discourse; and (2) being assured of having a motivated audience

    –>The question that arises out of that mobilization however is the following:

    Just what exactly is the new role for scientists and journalists in communicating with the public and being actively involved in policy? What do the realities of politics and the media environment suggest is the new mode for scientists and journalists as honest brokers?

    The tone of the following speech from a former president of the APA seems like a good start:

    http://www.apa.org/monitor/jan98/pres.html

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!