The Intersection

Science on the Campaign Trail

A really great Issues in Science and Technology article by Sheril and our ScienceDebate2008 colleague (and CEO) Shawn Otto is now available online here. It is a look back at the unprecedented ScienceDebate initiative and the not inconsiderable impact it had on the campaign–despite numerous hurdles, including an uninterested media and candidates who were not exactly jumping to debate science policy. An excerpt:

Although the candidates still refused to debate, instead attending yet another faith forum at Saddleback Church in California, Science Debate 2008 was able to obtain written answers from both candidates. The Obama campaign tapped the expertise of his impressive campaign science advisory team to help him answer. The McCain campaign relied on their brilliant and multitasking senior domestic policy advisor, the economist and former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

Once the answers were in hand, the Science Debate initiative was finally “news” from a political editor’s perspective. It was providing the candidates’ positions in their own words on a wide variety of substantive issues, and suddenly the floodgates opened. In the final month of the campaigns, reporters were looking for ways to differentiate the candidates, and political reporters started taking apart the nuances in the answers’ rhetoric. Obama, for example, expressly talked about a variety of international approaches to addressing climate change, and reporters noted that McCain remained silent on international issues and steered far away from the Kyoto Protocol.

The responses highlighted other, broader differences between the candidates. Senator Obama stressed his plans to double the federal agency research budgets, whereas Senator McCain stressed further corporate deregulation and tax credits to stimulate more corporate R&D, coupled with big money prizes to reward targeted breakthroughs. This philosophical difference carried through in answers on energy policy, education, innovation, and other areas. Senator Obama’s team further refined his answers into his official science policy platform. Senator McCain’s answer to the stem cell question came briefly into play in the race when his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, contradicted it in an interview with James Dobson and was subsequently described as “going rogue.” In another answer and followup interview, Senator McCain claimed to have been responsible for the development of wi-fi and Blackberry-like devices, which caused a minor tempest. Senator Obama made news when 61 Nobel laureates, led by Obama science advisory team leader Harold Varmus, signed a letter in support of his campaign, and the answers of both candidates to the questions of Science Debate 2008 served as the basis for a letter signed by 178 organizations urging the winner to appoint a science advisor by January 20 and elevate the post to cabinet level.

References to the candidates’ science policy views eventually appeared in almost every major U.S. paper and in a wide variety of periodical and broadcast outlets across the country and around the world. All told, Science Debate 2008 generated over 800 million media impressions and was credited with elevating the level of discourse. No matter which candidate one supported, this level of discussion is healthy, some might even say critical, for a 21st-century United States.

Alan Leshner, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the ScienceDebate2008 steering committee (as am I, as is Sheril), also has a letter in Issues responding to this article. Leshner notes some important science policy concerns that were not part of the ScienceDebate2008 list of 14 questions–notably, the considerable bureaucratic overhead that scientists face, and that prevents them from spending time on research.