The Scientific Activist

i-11f6a8ac85dd54ab4ccfc3261ddf9538-sciencedebate2008.jpgChris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum of The Intersection (along with Derek Araujo, Matthew Chapman, Austin Dacey, Lawrence Krauss, Shawn Lawrence Otto, and John Rennie) are spearheading a grassroots movement called Sciencedebate 2008 to try to convince the powers that be of the need for a presidential debate on science in 2008. For a comprehensive list of the reasons why this is a good idea, I would have to rehash almost everything I’ve written on this blog… and then some. The point is that science is playing a growing role in society and politics, affecting in some way almost every issue a future president would face. In addition, there are science-specific issues that don’t always get the consideration they deserve. And, of course, there is the growing trend of politicization of science that needs to be addressed.

If you agree, you can go to the site and sign the following statement:

Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy.

In addition to a lengthy list of bloggers supporting this effort, the organizers have already assembled an impressive roster of big-name supporters (mostly scientists and people involved in public understanding of science), including “Nobel laureates and other leading scientists, presidents of universities, congresspersons of both major political parties, business leaders, religious leaders, former presidential science advisors, the editors of America’s major science journals, writers, and the current and several past presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among many others.”

Chris Mooney and Lawrence Krauss have both recently published articles on the need for science considerations to play a larger role in determining who our next president is. The most compelling reason for this, of course, is that we cannot have a repeat of the George W. Bush Presidency, with it’s flagrant and repeated political interference in science–from the censorship of science on global warming to the blocking of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Fortunately, even one of the Republican candidates would likely be an improvement, although their creationist-friendly views and the more pro-active science stances of the Democrats indicate that in this election any of the Democratic front-runners would be better for science than any of the Republicans. Still, we need a science-focused debate to make sure that the candidates are keeping science concerns near the top of their agendas.

A couple of articles have been published recently on the topic of presidential science advisors. Chris Mooney has one in the current issue of Seed, and Roger Pielke (of Prometheus) had quite detailed one in the November 15th issue of Nature. Although they approach the topic quite differently (with Pielke downplaying the importance of the science advisor quite a bit), both point out that almost all of the presidential science advisors to date have been physicists. More than anything, this is a holdover from the Cold War era, and Mooney points out that a biomedical scientist or a climate scientist would be likely be more relevant today. I agree, and I would opt for the former: although I’m obviously biased on this issue, biomedical research is arguably the “hottest” area of science right now (or at least the area of science currently producing the most breakthroughs likely to influence our lives), just as physics was when the presidential science advisor position was created earlier in mid-Twentieth Century. Appointing a more relevant or more influential presidential science advisor is no panacea for our scientific woes–as Pielke emphasizes–but it would be a step in the right direction.

One of the trickiest issues that the next president will have to deal with is the declining success rates of NIH grants (see here and here for previous posts on the issue). There’s certainly no quick fix (at least for a long term solution). The next president will most definitely need to push for NIH budget increases, but he or she will also need to assemble a team come up with innovative solutions to balancing the competing interests of supporting young investigators without making them overly dependent on NIH funding. Such an endeavor would surely require engaging the nation’s biomedical science community across the board. To do this, the president needs to be aware of the issues and needs to have credibility with the scientific community. A presidential debate on science will be one way to help gauge which candidate best fits this description.

The next president will have many other pressing scientific issues to deal with. Global warming will only become a more immediate concern, and the next president needs to be receptive to the science on global warming, open to innovative technical solutions, and willing to do what is necessary to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. Alternatively, one of the very first acts of the next president should be to lift President Bush’s current ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Also, we must not–and cannot–continue to be the laughing stock of the world by having a leader who believes that religious creationism or pseudoscientific intelligent design should be taught in science classes. Period.

These are just some of the science-related issues that the next president will have to tackle head-on. There are many more like these and countless others that are tangentially related to science. We need a president who is both friendly to science and comfortable with it. We need a president who is going to rely on science in formulating policy and not let personal ideology determine what science he or she is going to listen to. So, let’s have a presidential debate focused solely on scientific issues to help us figure out who best fits the bill!

Comments

  1. #1 Dave Briggs
    December 11, 2007

    I’ve been on a dozen science blogs today and most of them have a post regarding this issue! It is very nice to see everyone getting involved. Hopefully we can get a lot accomplished, but from what I am seeing there most definitely won’t be any question that everyone is doing their best!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  2. #2 FGF
    December 18, 2007

    If a Presidential Debate on Science were to be held – and I won’t hold my breath – it would be one of the most terribly disappointing spectacles to be witnessed by mankind. The only thing possibly more ridiculous would be a GOP Primary Debate on Science.

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