Sciencedebate stormed onto the political scene in 2008 with signatures from thousands of prominent scientists calling on Barack Obama and John McCain to debate on science, technology, and the environment. The candidates declined a TV discussion but did provide written responses to 14 questions after a poll found that 85 percent of Americans agreed with the need for this kind of debate. In a similar 2012 poll, 84 percent supported a face-off. ScienceDebate cofounder Shawn Lawrence Otto (above) discusses how the group is revving up for the 2012 election.
How has ScienceDebate grown since it came on the scene in 2008?
It now has about 40,000 supporters who are not just scientists and engineers but also corporate CEOs, members of Congress, presidents of more than 100 universities, as well as economists, writers, and artists. All of these people care about science, the environment, U.S. competitiveness, and policy making being based on knowledge and evidence instead of opinion and ideology.
Why are candidates reluctant to debate science-related topics?
In the past, when I talked to the campaigns about this, they wanted to avoid the possibility that their candidate might make a factual error that would make him appear foolish. We had to do a lot of work to clarify that we weren’t trying to sandbag anybody and that this wasn’t about the fourth digit of pi. Candidates opine about the economy even though they aren’t economists. They talk about foreign policy even though most of them aren’t diplomats. They talk about defense and military spending even though few of them have ever been generals. But they rarely talk about science, which has such a profound impact on our lives and lies at the center of most of our problems as a nation. Debating science is something new.
How likely is it that the 2012 candidates will take part?
Even though I’m hopeful and the public is generally supportive, I don’t know. It will depend on the internal deliberations of each campaign. But because they care deeply about America, I’m hopeful they will. We’re again doing video statements from prominent scientists answering two questions: Why the candidates should do this and why people should care about it. On our website (ScienceDebate.org) the public can submit questions that they think the candidates should be asked, and people can vote on those. The general public will also be able to submit YouTube videos about why candidates should participate.
What are the biggest scientific issues the next president will face?
The hottest political issue, and probably in my view the most important one to solve, is climate change. It has the broadest public policy, economic, and environmental implications, no matter your views on it.
This story originally ran in the May-June 2012 issue as "Up for Debate."