Science Debate 2008: A Good Idea

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Science is something that rarely gets talked about in a presidential election campaign, at least not in any substantive way.

And yet, one lesson of the Bush Administration is that a President’s approach to the subject can leave an impact that will last decades, maybe even centuries, after he is out of office. President Bush spent the 2000 campaign promising that his decisions would be based on “sound science,” but no one ever really challenged him on what, precisely, that meant. That’s why a growing number of scientists, academics and organizations including the AAAS, the Council on Competitiveness, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine have called for a presidential debate on the subject, to give voters a clearer sense of how the candidates would approach the environment, health, medicine and technology. They all have been invited to a debate on April 18 in Philadelphia. So far: No acceptances.

The latest person to join the call is Dr. Shirley Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the nation’s oldest technological research university. Jackson, former chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has been one of the leading voices warning of what she calls a “quiet crisis” in America, which is the growing gap between our need for scientists and engineers and the capacity of this country’s educational system to produce them.

“Energy policy is a perfect example,” Jackson says of the need for a debate focused on science and technology. “Global energy security is the greatest challenge of our time, inextricably interlinked with our economic and national security. The exponential demand for energy worldwide — and the link to climate change — presents extraordinary geopolitical challenges and offers extraordinary economic opportunities, yet the United States does not have a comprehensive energy roadmap. It is essential to understand what the next President will do to put us on the pathway to global energy security and sustainability, yet there has been a surprisingly limited discussion on these issues.”

I can’t imagine a better use of a couple of hours of the candidates’ time.