- Interest Groups
[posted June 5, 2015--this is an ongoing effort...see the website for more information]
During the past two presidential elections, President Obama, Senator McCain, and GOP-candidate Romney responded in writing to cultivated and reviewed by our team on science and technology policy. Their answers were widely distributed in print and online prior to the elections through partnerships with popular magazines and journals. President Obama formed his science policy team to help him respond. Voters voted with knowledge they would not otherwise have had, and the president arrived in office with a clear idea of how science fit into his overall strategic objectives.
Over 42K ScienceDebate supporters include Congresspeople, Nobel laureates, over 100 university presidents, and many organizations that have added their names to a nonpartisan statement reading that presidential candidates should address science and technology. We also encourage our members to submit questions they would like candidates to address, covering topics from climate change, food security and education to drought, oceans and human health.
These aren't science challenges--they are humanity’s challenges -- inherently connected to the economy, global leadership and innovation.
With the 2016 election ahead, we would like to get presidential candidates more engaged on science and technology issues throughout their campaigns and on record so that voters are informed before Election Day.
“Whenever the people are
can be trusted with their own government."
—Thomas Jefferson, Scientist-statesman
Director: Sheril Kirshenbaum, Director of the UT Energy Poll, author
Board Chair: Shawn Lawrence Otto, Filmmaker, screenwriter, author
President: Matthew Chapman, Filmmaker, screenwriter, author, descendent of Darwin
Lawrence Krauss: Director, Origins Project, ASU, astrophysicist, author
Michael Halpern: Union of Concerned Scientists, Center for Science and Democracy
Darlene Cavalier: Republican advocate for public participation in science policy
Ryan Johnson: Attorney, Co-Founder of Northstar Science Film Festival
"Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for public debates in which the U.S. presidential and congressional candidates share their views on the issues of science and technology policy, health and medicine, and the environment."
NOTED INDIVIDUAL SIGNERS
Neil deGrasse Tyson Director, Hayden Planetarium
Elon Musk CEO, Tesla, SolarCity, and SpaceX
John Holdren President Obama’s Science Advisor
John Sexton President NYU, Chair NY Academy of Sciences
Lee Bolinger President Columbia University
David Skorton President Cornell University
William Brody President Johns Hopkins University
Ellen Futter, President American Museum of Natural History
Shirley Tilghman, President Princeton University
Walter Isaacson President & CEO, Aspen Institute
Ralph Cicerone President, National Academy of Sciences
Vinton G Cerf Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google
Craig Venter President, J. Craig Venter Institute; Chair and founder
Donna Shalala Pres Univ of Miami, fmr Secretary of Health and Human services
Harold Varmus Nobel Prize in Medicine, 1989
Drew Gilpin Faust President Harvard University
Susan Hockfield President MIT
Rev. John Jenkins President University of Notre Dame
Michael Roth President Wesleyan University
Mae Jameson, Astronaut, NASA, President, Biosentient Corporation
John Podesta Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair
Steven Chu Former Secretary of Energy, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1997
Mark Ruffalo Actor, Director, Environmentalist
Ben Kallos Science Debate Ambassador to NY, Council Member NYC,
James Wright, President, Dartmouth College
David Daniel President University of Texas at Dallas
Bill Nye - Science educator, comedian, TV host.
Ira Flatow Host of NPR’s Science Friday
Randy Olson Marine Ecologist, Filmmaker, Flock of Dodos
Adam Bly CEO and Editor-in-Chief, Seed Media Group
Arne Carlson, Former Republican Governor Minnesota
David Schwimmer Actor & Director
Peter Coyote Actor, Activist, Author
Martin Peretz Editor-in-Chief emeritus The New Republic
Bobby Shriver Producer and President of RSS, Inc.
Paula Apsell Senior Executive Producer, NOVA
Sir Harold Evans Editor, The Week Magazine, former editor Sunday Times
Evan Hansen Editor-in-Chief, Wired.com
Ann Druyan CEO, Cosmos Studios; cowriter, producer, Contact
Linda Miller U.S. Executive Editor Nature and Nature Journals
Lawrence Krauss Author and Astrophycisist
James Watson Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1962
Peter Norvig Director of Research, Google
Father George Coyne Director Emeritus, Vatican Observatory
Sam Farr Congressman, (D-CA-17)
Norm Augustine Ex CEO, Lockheed Martin, Former Undersecretary of the Army
Stephen Berger Chairman Odyssey Investment, Fmr head of Port Authority, NY
Newt Gingrich Former U.S. Speaker of the House
Sheila Galloway Executive Director, Merck Research Laboratories
Leon Lederman Nobel Prize in Physics, 1988
Phillip Campbell Editor-in-Chief, Nature
Steven Pinker Author, Psychologist, Harvard University;
Deborah Wince-Smith President, Council on Competitiveness
John Abele Founding Chairman, Boston Scientific
Jim Ramstad Former Congressman, (R-MN)
Richard Templeton President and CEO, Texas Instruments
Rush Holt Former Congressman, CEO of the AAAS
Sheldon Glashow Nobel Prize in Physics, 1979
Michael Oppenheimer Nobel Peace Prize 2007
David Politzer Nobel Prize in Physics, 2004
Robert Richardson Nobel Prize in Physics, 1996
Mariette DiChristina Editor-in-Chief, Scientific American
Jane Lubchenco Former Head of NOAA
John Mather Nobel Prize in Physics, 2006
Bart Gordon Congressman, (D-TN-6)
Cynthia Wainwright Former Corporate Philanthropist for J.P. Morgan Chase
Peter Agre Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2003
David Baltimore Nobel Prize in Medicine, 1975
John Porter Former Congressman (R-IL)
Jim Leach Former Congressman (R-IA-2)
Wayne Gilchrest Former Congressman, (R-MD-1)
NOTED ORGANIZATION SUPPORTERS
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
American Economics Group, Inc.
American Museum of Natural History
Arizona State University
The Aspen Institute
Aspen Science Center
Association of American Medical Colleges
Association for Women in Science
The Brain Trauma Foundation
The Carnegie Institution of Washington
Fox Chase Cancer Center
The Franklin Institute Science Museum
Friends of the Earth
Foundation for the Advancement of Behavioral & Brain Sciences
Johns Hopkins University
The New School
New York Hall of Science
New York University
Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University
The National Academy of Engineering
The National Academy of Sciences
National Wildlife Federation
NOVA Television Series
NOW, PBS weekly TV news program
The Santa Fe Institute
Scientific American Magazine
Science Friday, Inc
The Scientist Magazine
Seed Media Group, Seed Magazine, and ScienceBlogs
Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA)
Society for Neuroscience
Society for Women's Health Research
Society of Women Engineers
The Union of Concerned Scientists
University of Arizona
University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Riverside
University of Maryland
University of Massachusetts
University of Minnesota
University of Notre Dame
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
University of Washington
World Wildlife Fund (WWF)
HOW SCIENCE DEBATE BEGAN
Fool Me Twice – Fighting The Assault on Science in America
Shawn Lawrence Otto.
In late 2007, the League of Conservation Voters analyzed the questions asked of the then-candidates for president by five top prime-time TV journalists—CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, MSNBC’s Tim Russert, Fox News’s Chris Wallace, and CBS’s Bob Schieffer. By January 25, 2008, these journalists had conducted 171 interviews with the candidates. Of the 2,975 questions they asked, how many might one suppose mentioned the words “climate change” or “global warming”? Six. To put that in perspective, three questions mentioned UFOs. The same could be said of any one of several major policy topics surrounding science. Not a single candidate for president was talking about them. It was like they didn’t even exist. But in a world increasingly dominated by complex science, these questions—and not who’s wearing what lapel pin—are what will determine our future. In the fall of 2007, this strange avoidance of science in our national dialogue was also noticed by Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson Matthew Chapman, who wondered what could be going on. A film director and the screenwriter for such films as 2003’s Runaway Jury, Chapman picked up the phone and began calling friends to see if they’d noticed this, as well. He reached physicist Lawrence Krauss, science journalist Chris Mooney, marine biologist and science blogger Sheril Kirshenbaum, science philosopher Austin Dacey, and this author, and we all agreed that the silence on science issues was astounding.
As a group, we founded what ultimately grew into the largest political initiative in the history of science, Science Debate 2008, an effort to get the candidates for president to debate the major science policy issues.
We put up a Web site, placed op-ed pieces in national publications, and reached out to contacts and leading science bloggers. One of those bloggers, Darlene Cavalier of ScienceCheerleader.com, connected us with the US National Academies and became part of our core team. Within weeks, thirty-nine thousand people from across the political spectrum had signed on, including several Nobel laureates; prominent scientists; the presidents of most major American universities; the CEOs of several major corporations; and political movers ranging from John Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, on the left to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the right. We had obviously touched a nerve. Feeling affirmed, we then reached out to the campaigns. They ignored us. This is, of course, a classic campaign tactic. You never, ever give energy to anything that you wish would go away. You simply do not engage, because the moment you do there is a story, the thing gets legs, and if you don’t have your message already developed, you can lose control of your narrative. Many a campaign has been sunk by violating this cardinal rule. The question was why they wouldn’t want to engage. We called Ira Flatow and went on NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the US National Academies, and the nonprofit Council on Competitiveness signed on to our group as cosponsors. Our steering committee was cochaired by two congressmen, one from each party, and included prominent Democrats, Republicans, and even the leader of the Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists. Soon we represented more than 125 million people through our signatory organizations.
Still the candidates refused to even return phone calls and e-mails. So we decided to organize a presidential debate and turned to the national media outlets for help. This being science, we brought on as broadcast partners PBS’s flagship science series Nova and the news program Now on PBS. David Brancaccio, Now’s host, would moderate. We set a date shortly before the all-important Pennsylvania primaries and teamed up with the venerable Franklin Institute in Center City Philadelphia to host. But despite the urging of advisers like EMILY’s List founder Ellen Malcolm, who was involved with Senator Hillary Clinton’s (D-NY) campaign, and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, who was supporting Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), both of those candidates refused invitations to a debate that would center on the US economy and science and technology issues; Senator John McCain (R-AZ) ignored the invitation entirely. Instead, Clinton and Obama chose to debate religion at Messiah College’s Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, campus—where, ironically, they answered questions about science. How, it’s reasonable to ask, has American political culture come to a point where science can be discussed only in a forum on religion? What little news coverage of this stunning development there was didn’t seem to affect the campaigns at all. The candidates continued their policies of nonengagement. By then it wasn’t just scientists who thought this was odd.
Science Debate and the nonprofit Research!America, which works to make medical research a higher national priority, commissioned a national poll and found that 85 percent of the American public thought that the candidates should debate the major science issues. Support was virtually identical among Democrats and Republicans. Religious people clearly were not put off by the idea. It seemed that the candidates alone were reticent. Something in American political culture had made science taboo. With the window closing for a debate before the endorsing conventions, after which point the Democratic and Republican Party-controlled Commission on Presidential Debates would take over, we recruited marine scientist and former AAAS president Jane Lubchenco to help organize a debate in Oregon in August. Obama and McCain refused this one too, opting instead to hold yet another faith forum, this time at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California.
The scientific, academic, and high-tech communities were stunned. They saw it as a rebuke, and a travesty of American politics. Science has been responsible for roughly half of all US economic growth since World War II, and it lies at the core of most major unsolved policy challenges. How could people who wanted to lead America avoid talking about science? Intel chairman Craig Barrett reached out to former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina on the McCain side to encourage his participation, and Varmus redoubled his efforts to convince Obama. Meanwhile, our supporters had submitted more than 3,400 questions that they wanted us to ask the candidates. Working with several leading science organizations, we culled them into “The 14 Top Science Questions Facing America” and released them publicly. The candidates still ignored us.
Facing increased competition from cable TV and a free model for news on the Internet, American news media have been trimming costs. Among the first things to go were investigative and science reporters. A Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy report from 2005—early in the science news crisis—showed that from 1989 to 2005, the number of major newspapers with weekly science sections fell from ninety-five to thirty-four. By 2005, only 7 percent of the approximately 2,400 members of the National Association of Science Writers had full-time positions at media outlets that reached the general public. In May of 2008 the Washington Post killed its famed science section. In November, NBC Universal fired the Weather Channel’s entire Forecast Earth staff—during the NBC network’s Green Week promotion—ending the station’s only environmental series that focused on global warming. In December, CNN fired its entire science, technology, and environment news unit. In March of 2009, the Boston Globe, located in a worldwide capital of scientific research, closed its world-renowned science and health section. As a result, Americans find themselves in an absurd and dangerous position: In a time when the majority of the world’s leading country’s largest challenges revolve around science, few reporters are covering them from the scientific angle. In Europe, by contrast, just the opposite is happening: Science coverage has increased. A 2008 analysis of prime-time news on selected European TV stations showed that there were 218 science-related stories (including science and technology, environment, and health) among the 2,676 news stories aired during the same week in the years 2003 and 2004, an eleven-fold increase since 1989. And in the developing world, science reporting is “flourishing.”
Alarmed by this erosion of science in America’s national dialogue, the two physicists in Congress agreed to become cochairs of the Science Debate effort. Representatives Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) and Rush Holt (D-NJ) both said that ignorance of basic scientific concepts in Congress had become a serious problem—and not just on the major science policy issues like climate change. It was of equal concern in “those countless issues, and it really is countless, that have scientific and technological components but the issues are not seen as science issues,” said Holt.19 Of the 435 representatives in the House, he said, “420 don’t know much about science and choose not to.” Ehlers described how he sometimes found himself “rushing to the floor” to protest cutting funding for scientific endeavors whose importance members did not understand. The member who once was pushing to cut the budget for game theory, for example, didn’t realize that it dealt with economics, not sports. Another colleague who wanted to cut “ATM” research funding argued that it should be the responsibility of the banking industry, and Ehlers had to point out that the acronym stood for “asynchronous transfer mode,” a fiber-optic data transfer protocol
By 2008 it was becoming increasingly doubtful whether a Republican candidate for president could get the party’s endorsement without taking a stridently antiscience position. Democrats, in turn, seemed terrified of offending fundamentalist swing voters, preferring instead to either “out-conservative” the conservatives or avoid the subjects of science and technology entirely. Scientists hoped that John McCain could somehow rebuff this trend. McCain had long crafted a reputation as a “maverick” and a data-driven “straight shooter.” If anyone could stem the tide, he could, they thought. But they couldn’t get even Obama to engage, much less McCain.
Finally, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, Obama relented and told the Science Debate team that while he wouldn’t participate in a televised forum, he would participate in an online “debate.” He formed a science advisory team headed by Varmus to help him answer the questions. Scientists were jubilant—finally, someone was listening. Days later, McCain agreed as well, and the press, given a classic conflict frame, was finally interested.
The Science Debate story, and the candidates’ answers to “The 14 Top Science Questions Facing America” made nearly a billion media impressions. The public finally started seeing discussions of the candidates’ positions on climate change, energy, health care, space, the environment, and the research drivers of economic competitiveness. Perhaps, scientists dared to hope, the dark days of American unreason had passed.