Questions for the presidential candidates: where do you stand on science?


Science matters. It's hard to make good decisions in today's world that aren't somehow informed by sound science -- especially if you're the head of state of a country like the USA.

This means that it's important to know where the people lined up to get the job of President of the United States stand on science. Those of us deciding how to vote could use this information, and even you folks who are subject to US foreign policy have a significant interest in knowing what you'll be in for.

There ought to be a presidential debate focused on science and technology before the 2008 election. It's not just the bloggers who think so, either. A bunch of serious scientists support the idea, too.

Here are some big things I want to know about where presidential candidates stand on science -- the kinds of questions a science and technology debate might put on the table:

  1. Do you see high quality science education -- from the primary grades through the university level -- as a priority? If so, who are you looking to for advice about what exactly counts as a quality science education? If not, why not?
  2. What role do you think scientific findings should play in public policy debates?
  3. What role do you think the public should play in shaping scientific priorities (or in shaping the allocation of public monies to scientific research)?
  4. How should public interests and corporate interests be balanced in setting research priorities? How should public interests and corporate interests be balanced in oversight and regulation of scientific research?
  5. Given that much scientific research is supported with public monies, what kind of steps do you think should be taken to ensure that the public can access and/or benefit from the knowledge that comes out of this research?
  6. Should the federal government be committed to supporting basic research? Why or why not?
  7. Are you prepared to let government scientists present the facts as they see them, both to your administration and to the public?
  8. If sound scientific research were to demonstrate that one of your policy initiatives couldn't work (or couldn't work without tremendous cost in terms of money, health risk, negative environmental impact, etc.), what would you do?

If you have questions about science and technology that you think the presidential candidates should address, feel free to leave them in the comments.

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"8. If sound scientific research were to demonstrate that one of your policy initiatives couldn't work (or couldn't work without tremendous cost in terms of money, health risk, negative environmental impact, etc.), what would you do?"

This almost, but not quite, hits the fundamental cultural problem between the two societies, science and politics. Your question should be reframed as "what if research were to demonstrate your policy hadn't worked in the first three years, then what would you do?". The problem is that political behavior is unfalsifiable. "My policy didn't work? Well, we just didn't do it enough. Let's do it more." Tax cuts or welfare, same deal. No testing, falsifying and moving on to something else because the data told us the policy was flawed. Even the slightest sign of this and someone is a "flip flopper".

My question (as asked by a child during a recent Giuliani campaign stop):

"If (there's) something living on another planet and it's bad and it comes over here, what would you do?"

Rudy didn't do such a great job answering it. I'd like to see how some of the other candidates would handle the illegal aliens.

"We'll be prepared for that, yes we will," Rudy responded. "We'll be prepared for anything that happens," he added, deftly avoiding actually answering the innocently asked question. The young man did not ask "Will we be prepared?" but rather "What would you do?"

After dodging the question, the former New York City chief executive continued to patronize the young man by comparing him to Steven Spielberg. Stuttering and stammering, Rudy changed the subject; he asked the boy whether he wanted to be a scientist or a science-fiction writer. (The boy's response: Neither. He aspires to be a sculptor).

Would not the teaching of evolutionary theory with the so-called "theory of Intelligent Design" be more confusing to acience students than enlightening? It seems to this 63 year old brain that no non-scientific concept should ever be taught in a science class and that it would be better to begin in high school to teach the phiosophy of science as much as the content of particular sciences.

By Agkistrodon, Ph.D. (not verified) on 11 Dec 2007 #permalink

I see this topic coming up on a lot of the blogs. I don't know how much good it will do, but it is nice to see everyone pushing for it and doing every thing they can!
Dave Briggs :~)

Thought some of you might find this interesting.

Slate associate editor Daniel Engber sends along this dispatch from the AAAS meeting in Boston.

None of the candidates have agreed to attend the long sought-after presidential debate on science and technology, scheduled for April 18th. But in what may have been a gesture of consolation, envoys from both the Clinton and Obama campaigns made a surprise visit to Boston Saturday, to conduct a 90-minute "forum" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

About 400 science researchers, policy wonks, and journalists packed into a meeting-room to see the surrogates duke it out. In the Clinton corner was Tom Kalil, a ruddy, thick-necked bureaucrat armed with a PowerPoint presentation and a full clip of obscure facts about academe. (Did you know that the average age for receiving your first NIH R01 grant is 41?) Representing Obama was Alec Ross, a smarmy and pandering thirtysomething in shirtsleeves. "I'm one of those guys who's deeply moved by data," he said, and then failed to adduce a single obscure fact about academe through the course of the session.

In this battle of the campaign stereotypes, Hillary came out the clear winner. Kalil began with a series of charts depicting the decline of American research funding. Then he laid out Clinton's plan to double funding for the NIH, the NSF, the NIST, and the research arms of the DOD and DOE. She'd reverse the ban on embryonic stem cell research, triple the size of graduate research fellowships, push for the creation of an ARPA-E, and restore the authority of the presidential science advisor. And this was just "version 1.0" of her agenda. The audience seemed appreciative--if not deeply moved--by the details.

Ross responded by saying that Obama's plan is even more "detailed" than Clinton's, "both in terms of breadth and in terms of detail." He then invited us--repeatedly--to visit where we'd see just how often they "really get into the weeds on an issue." Those without laptops learned only that Obama planned to double federal research funding, spend $150 billion on biofuels, and appoint a national Chief Technology Officer.

What about the debate on April 18th--would the candidates come out for that? Clinton: "Time will tell." Obama: "It's being given serious consideration."

Which means they are not going to show up.

Are they chickening out? Or we just mean shit to them?

Time will tell. But I am giving the latter serious consideration.

The answer to number 8 would really make it or break it, wouldn't it? That's the crux of the problem when it comes to science - do we let our opinions trump the data, or do we accept the data and change our mind?

With questions like these (they are good ones!), I would not be surprised if nobody showed up to the debate.