Chris Mooney, one of the originators of ScienceDebate2008 quotes the press release:

The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine are joining the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Carnegie Institution, the Council on Competitiveness, and several other organizations and universities in an effort to co-sponsor a presidential candidate debate on science, technology, health, and the economy. “This would provide a nonpartisan setting to educate voters on the candidates’ positions on key science, technology, and health challenges facing the next administration, while giving the candidates an opportunity to discuss issues that are often overlooked in presidential candidate debates but that are critical to U.S. competitiveness,” the presidents of the NAS, NAE, and IOM said in a statement.

He adds “Excuse me, but….have we not managed to unite, like, virtually all of American science in this cause in the space of about 2 months?”

Yes, Chris, yes you have. After Feb. 5, the candidates should be forced to sign up for the debate, even if it takes torches and pitchforks.

Chris and Sheril and Jennifer‘s presentation at the scienceblogging conference generated a stir, so perhaps I’m too quick to say that science is united. Most of the bloggers there have probably signed on to support the debate, but they have serious questions. Will the media care? Will the candidates care? Will voters care? Could Huckabee pick up votes by being rabidly anti-science? How do you keep this from being a quiz show?

I think that the cynicism revealed by the question is valid, since the public’s understanding of basic science lags badly behind scientists’ understand, and since politicians rarely encounter any outcry when they cut funding for basic science.

Then again, the public tends to be on our side when we make science an issue. Three examples suffice, though others abound. Voters in Kansas regularly elect a creationist Board of Education, which might seem to support the cynics. The thing is, no one pays attention to those races. I’d bet money that, without Google, most of you reading this couldn’t name a member of your state’s board. Each time Kansans elected creationists, a serious campaign against that Board broke out, and evolution-supporters won a majority in the next election. We could also point to the experience of the Dover school board.

The other two examples are the stem cell initiatives in California and Missouri. That California voters backed an initiative to spend money on stem cell research isn’t totally surprising, given California’s rep as a socially liberal state. The state referendum in Missouri was a much closer thing, and tells a fascinating tale, because of the interplay between the referendum campaign and a major Senatorial campaign in an important swing state.

In 2004, Claire McCaskill narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid after beating the sitting Democratic governor in the primaries. Given her strong performance in that statewide race, she was a natural choice to run against Senator Jim Talent in 2006. He was a conservative Republican, she was a moderate Democrat. He opposed stem cell research, she favored it. He backed Bush to the hilt, she didn’t.

Survey USA noted in a poll released shortly before the election treated the race as unpollable, noting that “There is a complex, symbiotic relationship in Missouri between the U.S. Senate race and Amendment 2, on stem-cell research. It is difficult to separate cause and effect.” Shifts in opinion about stem cell research (driven by advertisements by Michael J. Fox and local sports stars) drove shifts in opinion about the candidates, which in turn drove changes in views on the stem cell initiative. The public did pay attention, and did think seriously about that scientific policy question. And, in the end, Claire McCaskill and the stem cell initiative both won, helping ensure a Democratic Senate, and funding for stem cell research in Missouri. The public paid attention, and voted for science.

ScienceDebate2008 can succeed by focusing attention on the scientific issues, and how our next president will evaluate scientific input to the policy process. The stem cell debate in Missouri went beyond stem cells, to questions of how you evaluate new and promising research opportunities when they may raise ethical questions. How do you balance the chance to save lives against those ethical concerns? How much should you trust scientists to make wise choices, and to set their own agenda in pursuing research, and to what extent should the government act to encourage or discourage research in certain directions? Those are critical questions, and a candidate need not have a deep understanding of particular scientific facts to address those broader issues. The public cares about those questions, and cares about how candidates treat those questions.

This debate needs to happen, and, if it does, the public will care about the results.