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Americans Deserve a Presidential Science Debate

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Every major policy challenge the nation is facing is either wholly or partly driven by science, and yet this year in particular we have seen every mainstream candidate for president in 2012 adopt one or more positions that run contrary to the best available evidence science has to offer.

This isn't just a Republican problem. The current president has also taken policy positions that run contrary to advice from scientists on bipartisan panels, such as his position restricting the over-the-counter sale of the contraceptive known as Plan B.

Numerous candidates have developed a pattern of embracing various anti-science positions from the denial of climate change to the assertion that stem cell research is "killing children," in order to create controversy and reinvigorate sagging poll numbers. This is presumably based on the candidates' belief that evangelical voters are anti-science.

This sort of brinksmanship with reason is not only dangerous for science -- it is dangerous for democracy itself. The United States was founded on the principle that each individual could rationally ascertain the truth of things for him or herself, and therefore a government of, by and for the people would be more just and more effective than a government by the authoritarian edicts of a King or Pope. That means a government whose decisions are based on the best available evidence.

Jefferson thought it would take "no very high degree of education" for the people to ensure their freedom. But today, we live in a much more complex world than in Jefferson's day, and science affects all of our lives every day in profound ways. Many of our most pressing problems come out of the scientific advances of the past that policymakers have seen coming for decades but have been unable or unwilling to do anything about. Problems like climate change, biodiversity loss, and crashing fisheries populations are examples where human behavior enabled by the power of science and engineering has outstripped policymaking.

If democracy is to remain an effective form of government -- in other words a viable way to successfully manage our common problems and opportunities -- elected officials and citizens alike will need "a higher degree of education" to match the more complex world we now live in.

At the very least we need our politicians to discuss these topics in public. Polls show that the public is hugely interested. Eighty five percent of republicans and democrats alike have indicated they think the candidates for president should debate the big science issues. In fact, the lack of a televised Presidential Science Debate is odd considering the accumulation of unresolved problems it could tackle, and considering the sharp divisions on issues like climate change.

One doesn't have to be a scientist to discuss science policy. This cycle the candidates for president regularly opine on military issues such as whether and how to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, even though none of them have experience as a general or admiral. They offer their solutions to create jobs and stimulate the economy, even though none of them are experienced economists. Americans are entitled to hear their opinions on the solutions to our most substantive challenges as well, the issues revolving around science.

In 2008, we hosted a presidential science debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. At the time, the candidates declined to participate in a nationally televised forum on these issues, despite their central importance to the American people. But they did participate online, and you can see their responses at http://www.sciencedebate.org/debate08.html. The effort was at the time the largest political initiative in the history of science, and it ultimately made more than 850 million media impressions, which helped to raise these issues in the public consciousness. President Obama appointed many of the effort's earliest supporters to key positions in the administration, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, USGS Director Marcia McNutt, National Cancer Institute Director Harold Varmus, and Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren. He talked about "restoring science to its rightful place," which happened to be a part of our mission statement, in his inaugural address.

This year, it's high time for the candidates for president to debate America's most important science and technology policy issues on television, so the American people can assess them on their approaches to these substantive issues. We all would benefit.

You can help in this process. Please go to http://questions.sciencedebate.org and vote for the science question(s) you think it is most important that the candidates for president answer. You can also comment on other questions or submit a question of your own. And if you think this project is important to America, please support it.

America needs and deserves a president who can show that he or she understands the importance of basing public policy on the best available evidence, as the founders intended. The candidates for president, and the voting public deserve a chance to have these issues discussed in a more thoughtful and incisive and public forum.

Lawrence M. Krauss and Shawn Lawrence Otto are founding members of the board of Science Debate 2012.
Krauss is Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, and the author most recently of A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.
Otto is CEO of ScienceDebate.org and the author of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America. Visit him at www.shawnotto.com.
Join ScienceDebate.org to get the presidential candidates to debate science.