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…
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.