Presidential Science Debate One More Time

Sorry to bring this up again, as I'm sure most of you couldn't care less, but something about the idea of a presidential debate on science-related issues really bugs me, and I've been trying to figure out exactly what that is. Plus, part of me is hoping that someone will come along and explain to me why this is a good idea.

So far, though, there seem to be two main justifications for having this debate. The first, expressed in the quote from the Sciencedebate 2008 website (and elsewhere) is that we are utterly dependent on science and technology in virtually every aspect of our lives. This is undoubtedly true, but the president has very little if any influence on the vast majority of the science and technology that we depend upon. Nor should he or she have much influence on it. Perhaps the one question to ask each of the presidential candidates will be, "Will you leave science the hell alone or not?" Because problems only arise when politics and science get entangled, as has happened too frequently under the current administration. A presidential debate on science-related issues can do nothing to remove political influences on science, but it can sure as hell serve to increase them.

The second justification, expressed for example by Chris Mooney in his Seed article titled "Dr. President, goes like this:

The next president of the United States of America will control a $150 billion annual research budget, 200,000 scientists, and 38 major research institutions and all their related labs.

I think this is a bit of an overstatement. The president doesn't have complete control over the budget; congress gets a say in that too. And most of those 200,000 scientists won't be affected at all by who happens to be elected in 2008, I imagine. And that's as it should be. Again, it seems that the main question to ask of the candidates here is, "Will you leave these 200,000 scientists be?"

And with respect to the science-related issues that politicians can, and at least in some cases should affect (i.e., policy that is informed but not dictated by science), we know perfectly well where the candidates stand. If scientists or the public haven't figured that out by now, it's not because the candidates haven't been talking, at length, about issues like the environment and global warming, health care and stem cells, and even space exploration (which has been a topic in at least one Republican primary debate that I know of). It's because the scientists, and anyone else who doesn't know exactly where these people stand on these issues, haven't been paying attention. And if you need the candidates to have an entire debate on your pet issue(s) in order for you to pay attention to what they say about them, then that's a personal problem.

In short, then, I don't think either of the main reasons given for having this debate are any good, and I think the problems with the idea of a science-only debate far outweigh any merit those reasons might have. In particular, we already know about where the candidates stand on the major science-related issues, as they've talked about them pretty extensively, and more importantly, an increased mingling of science and politics can only be bad for science. I get the impression -- and perhaps I'm wrong -- that this whole movement is yet another case of the hubris so frequently demonstrated by many scientists who think that their issues and opinions should be heard over everyone else's, and that Sciencedebate 2008 is merely a ploy to get scientists more influence in politics (where, for the most part, there only influence as scientists should be as information-conveyors), rather than to raise the awareness of science among the candidates and public.


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We are among the few who appear not to think this is the neatest idea since personal ringtones. Presidential debates aren't really debates, and even if they were, I don't think they serve much purpose other than to give the questioners a chance to try to look good and the candidates a chance to spread their latest sound bites. I already suggested on Chris's blog that they submit a list of science-related policy questions to the candidates rather than try to get them to sign up for a debate. But this bandwagon has already rolled. I'll be interested to see where it goes.

Again, it seems that the main question to ask of the candidates here is, "Will you leave these 200,000 scientists be?"


Well, argued!

By Wes Anderson (not verified) on 11 Dec 2007 #permalink

"This is undoubtedly true, but the president has very little if any influence on the vast majority of the science and technology that we depend upon."

The president appoints the head of the FDA. The FDA approves which drugs are sold in the United States. Therefore, a president who is, say, opposed to birth control, can appoint an FDA head who will delay and hinder the approval of Plan B for months, if not years.

This, as you may know, isn't a hypothetical. It has already happened. I agree, the number one thing we want the president to do regarding scientific research is stay out of it. But that isn't a given, unfortunately, and I don't know any better way to determine where presidential candidates stand on this vital issue than by asking them.

All this, and I haven't even addressed the issue of global warming yet. Because the other half of science, once you've done the research, is what do you do with what you've learned? And that gets very political very fast. There will be some hard decisions to make in the near future, and there are some powerful forces lined up against the science. It will take a president who actually understands and respects science to stand against that kind of pressure.

If you want a politics-free science, you're going to have to fight for it. Part of fighting for it is pushing back against those who would make science an adjunct of politics--making sure that science influences politics, not the other way around.

By heresiarch (not verified) on 11 Dec 2007 #permalink

I also think a science debate is not that great of an idea. I also think it's odd that a lot of the same people who generally take a "science is not up for debate" stand are also the same folks who are behind this. A "science debate" plays right into the hands (or frames, if Mooney or Nisbet are reading this) of both global warming skeptics and IDer's since it suggests to the public that there is debate about these subjects.

I think I'd rather have a "humanities" debate. Imagine the reaction if a bunch of philosophers wanted to organize a philosophy debate.

The NASA budget is determined by what the President wants, and the NASA Administrator (Mike Griffin) is bound to manage NASA based on the President's space policy. NASA's science budget is 5 billion dollars. The last thing I want is a President so ignorant that they think they should "leave science the hell alone," because it means the end of government funded science.

By Brian Mingus (not verified) on 12 Dec 2007 #permalink

Oh, I think the government should continue to fund science, and it should pay close attention to ethical considerations (e.g., when funding human research, ensuring that it conforms with ethical standards). But that, of course, is congress' job, not the president's. And I think congress should keep its nose out of science too, in the sense that it shouldn't have any say in how findings are interpreted or reported.

And I'm well aware that the president appoints the heads of several science agencies, including NASA and the FDA. Where the FDA is concerned, political involvement is terrible, unless the FDA isn't doing its job (that is, it's not paying attention to the science). Where NASA is concerned, the issues are muddier, but the general principle applies: the more politics is involved in NASA's science, the worse off that science is going to be.

What's more, we already know where many of the candidates (the Republican ones, at least) stand on NASA funding. It's been topic in the debates.

While reading this post I keep hearing George Carlin in my head, "When people say, 'Oh you just want to have your cake and eat it too.' What good is a cake you can't eat? What should I eat, someone else's cake instead?".

Seriously, did Pollyanna Whittier write this post? The naive optimism of wanting BOTH a socialistic AND a laissez-faire system for the government's involvement (in this case expenditures) in science is, well, naive. I am not arguing for either position in its purest form, but we as scientists or critics or whatever cannot pretend that the employer (i.e., some government agency) who is paying the employee (in this case some scientist) should have nothing to say about what the employee (i.e., scientist) is doing.

My larger point beyond the direct expenditures of the government on basic and applied science is that the government is involved in science EVERYWHERE one looks.

Brother, it is not simply in the funding of research or in the appointment of heads of various science related organizations. The role of the government in science can be found in its expenditures of taxes in every area of your life, and in the creation and enforcement of policies that again influence directly or indirectly every area of your life. So, in essence, wherever the government is and whatever the government does, there is ALWAYS a scientific area of research that can either be directly or indirectly referred to in advising those policies and tax expenditures.

Consider what we eat and then you think about the role of the USDA in food science. As Marion Nestle describes in her brilliant book "What to Eat," "the USDA was founded in 1862 for the express purpose of encouraging development of agriculture ... in the 1900s, one way it did so was to advise Americans to ... "eat more", [then] in the 1970's, Congress gave the USDA "lead agency" responsibility for educating the public about diet and health, which [meant] "eat less." When these purposes came into conflict, ... the USDA's default position was to support the industry it regulates." (pp. 153-154)

This is politics involved in food science.

Consider the energy you consume and then you think about the role of the EPA in energy science. Goal 1 of the EPA's 2006-2011 Strategic Plan is "clean air and global climate change." The EPA's 37 year indirect and direct support of coal mining, processing and burning for energy production purposes and its similarly long direct attack on nuclear energy should make one think that ...

This is politics involved in energy science.

Consider the environment directly and you think about the role of the DOT in environmental science. Depending on the state that you live in, up to 30% of the price of fuel is a tax that DIRECTLY goes to support highway building. That is the DOT directly encouraging the overuse of fossil fuels by creating more and more highways. I find it compelling that while the government is typically thought of as the SOLUTION to what is called the Tragedy of the Commons, here, with DOT practices, it is CREATING the tragedy.

This is politics involved in environmental science.

I could go on and on and on about how the role of the government in science is EVERYWHERE. It is easy. You try it. Go here and select one of the federal agencies and you would be hard pressed to not think of example of how this agency, and therefore the government is involved in science.

What is my point? Clearly, that the role of the government in science is not simply the direct funding of research, but it is ubiquitous. And therefore, we need to not simply ask our politicians what there stand is on NASA or its funding of basic and applied science research. We need to go deeper. We need to look at the role of science in every agency. We need to do this on fundamental terms and ask - "OK, do you understand the scientific implications of X policy or X taxation and expenditure of X government agency." To do anything less would be irresponsible.

So, bring on the science debates.

By john dennis (not verified) on 13 Dec 2007 #permalink

Hmm, just to disagree -- to my mind the really nice thing about a Presidential debate focused on issues in science would be that it establishes that having at least a basic understanding of science and technological issues is necessary to be a serious political contender. (Of course, that's the ideal; like almost everything in today's crappy political discourse, it would probably end up being a collection of soundbites -- but if you strive for the ideal you'll get a lot closer than you might otherwise).

I guess you may be saying that it actually isn't necessary to have a basic understanding of science and technology in order to be a good president, but if so, that really surprises me. Certainly a president need not know the molecular details of, say, how stem cells differ from non-stem cells; but knowing their potential uses in treatments of disease seems rather critical for making policy about them. (And, yes, the President isn't the only one who makes policy; but do you seriously want to argue that the president doesn't play a huge role in guiding the agenda and affecting what ultimately gets done?)

Another example: global warming. If we had a president who took science seriously, and could skeptically think about what it (and the "climate change skeptics") have and have not shown, then this would have a huge impact on what we do about global warming.

Not to mention funding -- a president who understands and takes science seriously is one who is far more likely not to strip funding from basic research. That's an important thing.

... I could keep listing things, but you get the point. I do agree that calling it a "science debate" is potentially iffy, since it gives the impression that standard scientific findings are up for debate -- but if it were called a "Presidential debate focused on science", and was designed / led with input from scientists, I think one could avoid that impression quite easily.

yet another case of the hubris so frequently demonstrated by many scientists who think that their issues and opinions should be heard over everyone else's, and that Sciencedebate 2008 is merely a ploy to get scientists more influence in politics (where, for the most part, there only influence as scientists should be as information-conveyors), rather than to raise the awareness of science among the candidates and public

Our influence as information-conveyors is tied both to our standing in the minds of the public and the visibility of our communicative platforms. So if you are actually interested in conveying information, you need to be interested not just in generating that information but in figuring out how to transmit it to your audience.

But you knew that. If not, why do you blog?

DM, I agree that it's important to be visible, and science should have influence on policy, but I don't think this is the way to go about accomplishing either of those things. I've yet to see an argument that it's anything but a way of unnecessarily mixing science and politics, something that can only hurt science in the long run.