The Intersection

Democrats, Republicans agree on need, disagree on issues; health care tops list

WASHINGTON–May 12, 2008– A new poll shows that 85% of U.S. adults agree that the presidential candidates should participate in a debate on how science can be used to tackle America’s major challenges. The poll found no difference between Democrats and Republicans on this question. A majority (84%) also agree that scientific innovations are improving our standard of living.

Among the most serious long-term issues facing the country, 76% rate health care the most serious, followed by alternative energy sources (69%), education (67%) and national security (61%). Issues also considered serious by a majority of U.S. adults include global economic competition (55%), poverty (53%) and climate change (53%).

Read the full press release here


  1. #1 Linda
    May 12, 2008

    I heard and read that Hillary Clinton challenged the other candidates to a debate in Oregon. As she intends to stay in the race, perhaps Sciencedebate 2008 is the perfect forum.

  2. #2 doug l
    May 12, 2008

    While I think it’s a sad comment on the state of our political leadership’s low regard for insight and knowledge of science and technology’s impact and importance in today’s world, I do have to wonder a bit. Think, if the person debating one side of an issue, say global warming, was a poor debater but their facts were more compelling, and they “lost” in the sense of failing to persuade the judges and presumably the audience, to a better debater whose facts were more based on ideology, how would we be better off? Science by consesus, as we’ve seen throughoug history, is not a very good way to conduct either science or politics.

  3. #3 Ethan Siegel
    May 12, 2008

    Umm… from the article:

    The poll… shows that 56% strongly agree and 29% somewhat agree that the presidential candidates should participate in a debate to discuss key problems facing the United States, such as health care, climate change and energy, and how science can help tackle them.

    As a literate person, what would you say if someone asked you, “Should presidential candidates participate in a debate to discuss key problems facing the United States, such as health care, climate change, and energy, and how science can help tackle them?” Of course you want them to discuss key problems facing the US! Of course you want health care (affects your life), climate change (affects your world/country/environment), and energy (affects your wallet) discussed. That last bit, about “how science can help tackle them” sounds like a footnote. To me. A scientist. You ask those questions and I guarantee you get policy discussions, not science discussions. And I doubt, seriously, that you get science policy discussions. I don’t think that 85% of people care about science policy that much; if you really want a poll to measure that, why don’t you try asking that question, instead of the question that people will obviously say yes to?

  4. #4 Philip H.
    May 12, 2008

    Contrary to Ethan’s statement above, I think 85% of people do care about science policy – they just don’t differentiate it from science. Going back to comments I’ve made here and elsewhere, we no longer teach our children civics, not do we teach them critical thinking and analytical skills (since there are few if any standardized tests for such things). That means that many folks, and i fear an increasing number of folks, can’t tell when a topic is science and when it is scientific policy.

    What worries me more is the politicians mind set. A very similar percentage of Americans think we should leave Iraq, and a certain Vice President said “So what.”

  5. #5 Joshua Zelinsky
    May 12, 2008

    So roughly everyone who knows enough to know that the earth revolves around the sun want a science debate? Understandably there others wouldn’t be so in favor of one if they don’t know much about the topic.

    (Citation for knowledge of heliocentricity- )

  6. #6 ethan Siegel
    May 12, 2008

    Joshua, it isn’t just the physical sciences and history that Americans know frighteningly little about.

    Check out this link:

  7. #7 A lurker
    May 12, 2008

    Chris, do you honestly expect us to believe that you could not have gotten similar numbers by replace science with any subject matter generally considered important. I would not be surprised if equivalent polls for a foreign policy debate or economic issues debate would get even greater numbers than a science debate. I am sure that a religion debate would poll at least 80%. An Iraq debate proposal and a bunch of other subjects surely would do very good as well.

    While a bunch of [Fill in the Blank]Debate2008 might be a good idea per se. It simply is not going to happen. For any particular subject, the only way both candidates will agree is that neither thinks they have a disadvantage in having such a debate. So long as details about the debates are negotiated between the campaigns, truly great debates will not happen.

    The situation won’t change until a set of debates can be effectively imposed on the nominees. The earliest time which there can be even slightest hope of this is the next time there is an upcoming presidential race which the likely nominee is not clear ahead of time.

  8. #8 shirley
    May 13, 2008

    That would be interesting…
    what do you think about his campaign song?

  9. #9 Screechy Monkey
    May 13, 2008

    Yes, it doesn’t seem like a terribly meaningful poll to me. From the voter’s point of view, there’s no real downside to a science debate, so it’s easy for people to say “yes” to. If you could show that more voters supported a science debate than one on the economy or foreign policy or immigration or “family values,” then maybe you’d have something. Or if you told poll participants that there will be X debates, and do they support having one of those X devoted entirely to science?

    This is like one of those polls that show that some large percentage of voters are “very concerned” about the environment. Whoop-de-do. Unless they’re willing to take action or support particular policies, expressing “concern” to a pollster doesn’t get you anywhere.

  10. #10 Stacie Propst
    May 14, 2008

    While I appreciate healthy skepticism about the public and their opinions, let’s clear up a couple of points. Since it is germane to this conversation and others have declared their scientific pedigrees, I earned my PhD as a cellular/molecular physiologist at UAB.

    At Research!America, I head up our science policy and outreach activities, which includes opinion research.

    A few points about the poll:
    1. don’t direct any wrath at Chris, he did not create the questions;
    2. the survey was not done for a scientific audience, but for media and regular folk like that oh-so ignorant public and candidates running for public office;
    3. there is no such thing as a completely unbiased question and with a limited budget, one must really ask directly what you are interested in knowing;
    4. Happy to share the complete methodology and top-line data from Harris Interactive with anyone interested in learning;
    5. I am sorry that anyone thinks a debate on how the next President and his/her administration will value (or not value) scientific evidence and advice is “simply not going to happen.” There are a tremendous number of influential people working to ensure that all candidates for federal office are required to establish their positions on a range of issues pertaining to science, research and the power of innovation. You should be too…

    Thank you to the person who said “take action.” If you go to, you can reach out to your general election candidates and demand that they tell you where they stand on issues like funding for research and current restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.

    People running for office listen to those voters/constituents who stand up and make themselves heard. Unfortunately, the scientific community is notoriously absent or just plain bad at it. Science seems to be the last special interest group in the U.S. to discover that if you disdain the political process and keep your distance, decisions get made regardless.

    Only we can change that…

  11. #11 David Bruggeman
    May 14, 2008

    I have a problem with this whole endeavor because it seems as though one of these debates is the least effective means of accomplishing the desired goal of:

    “ensur[ing] that all candidates for federal office are required to establish their positions on a range of issues pertaining to science, research and the power of innovation.”

    How does a debate accomplish this? How has a debate accomplished this at any point, on either side of the aisle, during this campaign?

    I have a hard time concluding that any of the candidates see a debate as an opportunity to establish and define their policy positions. And that goes for any particular area of policy. That’s why there are stump speeches, and position papers. You should have tried to get candidates to speak before you, on camera, outlining their positions, rather than create another debate that is analyzed not on policy, but on the political points scored.

    The poll questions are problematic (especially the first one), because they don’t make the connection between Research!America’s issues and the broader issues of health care, climate change and energy. Do most people think those issues are connected to what Research!America wants? That’s not at all clear from the polling data.

    If a debate happens that leads with the issues mentioned in the polls and switches to the science community’s issues of budgets and political interference, then we all lose. Because the reputation of scientists is tarnished by an obvious bait and switch.

    ScienceDebate 2008 has so far shown that the characterization of the scientific community as just plain bad at politicking is still accurate. Why didn’t the organizers encourage volunteering with the respective campaigns? Why didn’t they try and encourage the scientific equivalent of a foreign policy speech in front of the Council on Foreign Relations? Why did they focus on political theater? And bad political theater at that?

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