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Candidates weighing in at Science Debate

A coalition of scientists, academics and concerned citizens is pushing the presidential candidates to clarify their policies on science, technology and academic research, demanding that they answer questions about such issues.

With over 38,000 supporters, including President Ruth Simmons and Professor of Biology Ken Miller '70 P'02, Science Debate 2008 was able to elicit some answers late last month from Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama. In a written response, Obama answered 14 questions ­- whittled down from thousands submitted by supporters - and discussed his plans to advance the country's capacity for scientific innovation if elected.

Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, has promised to respond to the same 14 questions.

Science Debate 2008 was conceived in response to a shared desire within the scientific community to make science issues more prominent in political discussion, said Matthew Chapman, the organization's president.

"Science underlies just about every issue in political debate, but no one was talking about it," said Chapman, who has written books on the controversy over teaching intelligent design in schools.

While the group was disappointed that the candidates did not seriously debate academic issues in the primary elections, it hopes that the list of 14 questions will turn voters' focus to science and research, Chapman said.

"We want to raise these issues and make people, particularly young people, demand discussion of these issues," Chapman said.

Miller, who met Chapman while testifying at an intelligent design case in Pennsylvania, was the first to sign Science Debate 2008's petition. "I jumped on board right away," he said.

Energy, global warming, stem cell research and the amount of federal funding for scientific research were among the pressing scientific issues at stake in this presidential election, Miller said.

The next president must increase federal funding for innovative research, since funding has become increasingly difficult to attain ­over the past eight years, Miller said. Strings attached to federal funding and political censorship of scientific research are also issues Miller is concerned about.

For that reason, Miller said he was pleased that Obama wrote in his Science Debate 2008 response that he would increase research grants for young scientists in order to spur innovation. Obama also wrote that he would increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics and engineering "at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade."

Obama also stressed that he would increase the budget for technology developed under the Department of Defense and remove the ban on federal funding for stem cell research.

Shawn Otto, chief executive officer of Science Debate 2008, said he was pleased by the level of detail in Obama's responses.

"They were very detailed and substantive. That's the information candidates have a responsibility to lay out, and voters have a responsibility to see," Otto said.

While McCain has not yet answered any of the group's questions, Otto said he is optimistic McCain will soon weigh in on the issues, and representatives from the McCain campaign have said they are presently preparing answers. McCain has elsewhere articulated his views on certain science issues like stem-cell research, climate change and alternative energy.

"I'm very pleased that Obama answered, but it's only half of the Democratic event," Otto said. The two major candidates' opinions "need to come into contact" so that voters will have the necessary information to make educated decisions, he said.

However, Miller expressed concern that even if voters will soon be able to see the candidates' science and research policies side by side, many voters will still not investigate those policies before casting their ballots.

"As a voter and as a U.S. citizen, I'm not optimistic," he said. "Too many elections in our country have turned on trivial issues or personality."

Likewise, Professor of Education Martin West said that scientific issues are often overshadowed by more immediate concerns like national security.

"Science policy is an area that doesn't affect people's lives immediately in the short run, even though over the long run, it's very important," he said.

Science Debate 2008 has recently conducted national polls to investigate exactly how many voters consider science to be an important aspect of public discourse.

The polls conducted by the organization indicate that 85 percent want candidates to publicly discuss science issues, and 72 percent of Americans are more likely to vote for candidates who will clarify their policies on those issues, Otto said.

"Those are pretty substantive numbers," he said.

Hannah Lennett '11, an undeclared concentrator, said that although she is not considering science as a career, she thought science issues could be an important factor in differentiating between the two presidential candidates.

"Science isn't usually on my radar screen compared to issues like immigration or the war in Iraq," Lennett said. "But I'm looking for ways to make distinctions between candidates, and science would be an interesting way to do that, especially since science hasn't been touched very much by the press."

Sarah Hersman '10, who is concentrating in neuroscience, expressed concern about the challenge of getting Americans and lawmakers to value scientific research. "Where do you get the funding for scientific research when everyone only wants short-term solutions with maximum payoff?" she asked.

Chapman said it was imperative that students recognize the role science plays in nearly every political issue. "I know that science sounds boring to young people sometimes, but it underlies the future of every young person in the United States," he said.


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