What’s up with ScienceDebate2008?

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Last week MSNBC ran this story on our efforts to get the presidential candidates to debate science policy issues.

Our opening gambit, an April 18 debate in Philadelphia, is looking less and less likely.  Obama has declined, Clinton has been non-committal, and McCain has been non-responsive.  We want to acknowledge a national debt of gratitude to the Franklin Institute for their outstanding and visionary leadership on this issue, and we will undoubtedly work together with them in the future.

But if not April 18 in Philly, then what?  Is it over?

Not by a long shot.

Rather, the candidates’ reluctance demonstrates the very reason why our initiative is so important and must continue.  These issues will not go away by sticking our heads in the sand, and neither will the candidates’ responsibility to tackle them, or the voters’ right to assess the candidates on their plans.  So like the candidates, we are beginning to focus on the next major primary venue, which is Oregon in May.

To that end, we have formed a working relationship with the venerable PBS television programs NOVA, their science series, and NOW on PBS, their weekly news program, to cosponsor a national debate broadcast.  NOW host David Brancaccio will moderate, supported by a panel of internationally recognized scientists agreed upon by our cosponsors.  We’ve proposed not one but three possible dates. 

Click below to see The Invitation, #2:

Will the candidates demonstrate their commitment to these issues and accept?  We argue below why they should.

The Sputniks of our time

It wasn’t public outcry after Sputnik I and Sputnik II that moved the US into action.  It was the media, led largely at first by the New York Times, that raised the alarm, and policymakers and the public responded, culminating four years later in JFK’s historic speech focusing the nation on the common goal of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade.  If you haven’t listened to it recently, we encourage you to, as it is applicable to today’s situation in many ways, including how the media are different now.

While there is a broad range of science topics we want debated, today we do have a new Sputnik I and Sputnik II – science policy issues of such magnitude that they should be galvanizing the nation.  They aren’t as concrete as a Soviet satellite orbiting the earth, but they are far more ominous, and should justify our efforts all on their own.

Sputnik I: Ever since the huge influx on intellectual capital we enjoyed during WWII, science and engineering have been responsible for half the economic growth of the United States.  But if current trends hold, by 2010, in just two short years, 90% of all scientists and engineers will live in Asia.  This represents a huge shift in global economics, and is perhaps the single largest challenge to the ongoing strength of the US economy –  yet it is being virtually ignored by the candidates.   A debate would help focus the candidates and the nation on developing a hopeful plan to tackle this.

Sputnik II: Climate change is almost universally accepted among scientists, and in fact the data indicate that the situation is critical.  Action taken in the next 1-2 presidential terms may determine the future viability of the planet.  The candidates have plans dealing with this on their web sites, but generally they speak about reducing carbon emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by the year 2050 – so long after the next president’s term as to be somewhat analogous to JFK having said "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this century is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.A debate would help focus the candidates and the nation on assessing whether the candidates’ plans are adequate, and what hopeful steps we can take as a nation to rebuild our economy around clean, low-carbon energy technologies like the ITER project, which congress inexplicably zeroed funding for in the last omnibus budget bill. 

Such a national goal would reinvigorate our nation’s entire science program, and fill our nation with hopeful work, high investment returns, and well-paying jobs toward a unifying moral goal: preserving planetary viability and American economic strength for this and future generations.

Senatorial Science Debates

We are also now considering senatorial science debates in a few key states, moving slowly towards our longer-range objective of elevating science in our national dialogue and injecting it into our electoral process.  More on that as it develops.  Those who preside over a college, university or science museum in a state where there is a competitive senate race and are interested in exploring this with us please reply to this email.

Working with the media

Sunday evening, Shawn Lawrence Otto spoke in Austin, Texas to a group of National Public Radio science reporters about "Science in an Election Year," and how they are at the forefront of the key policy issues facing America.  The event was hosted by Earth & Sky and organized by Bari Scott.  "This is a nation that used to gather its children in auditoriums to watch a moon shot," he said.  "Every boy I knew had a model rocket in his bedroom.  That’s how much we valued science."  He explored why science has fallen in our national dialogue and what could be done to turn it around.  The free press was created to hold government accountable, he argued, and limiting the press to government- or party-approved messages is the first step taken by dictators.  Elected leaders are rarely able to lead beyond responding to public concerns, because without public concern there is generally not enough support to get anything passed.  But how does the public know what to be concerned about?  They rely on their organs of communication – the media.  It is the media’s job to report on the facts (versus a politically contrived "balance" of opinions) so that the public is aware of what the most concerning issues are – that is what news is.  And in the case of science, there are objective facts, and there is a lot of news.  He explained the mission and news of Science Debate 2008, talked about some of the top science stories of the season, and concluded by giving them a "holy charge" to hold candidates and the government accountable and ask hard questions on science and engineering policy issues, and especially those related to economic competitiveness, energy security & sustainability, and climate change, because "what could be a greater moral imperative than the ongoing viability of the planet?"

[REQUEST FOR CONTRIBUTIONS DELETED. Reproducing this is intended as news, not a solicitation. – FB]


The team at ScienceDebate2008.com

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