Is It A Science Debate If The Questions Are In Writing?

Scientific American noted today the final questions that the ScienceDebate folks will be submitting to both Presidential campaigns.  (Here is the part where I stipulate that this is effort is misguided, mostly because Presidential debates are not really the place to explore matters of policy.)  There are 14, under the following topics (edited from the full descriptions):

1. Innovation and the Economy. What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?

2. Climate Change. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?

3. Research and the Future.  Given that the next Congress will face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in research in your upcoming budgets?

4. Pandemics and Biosecurity. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from emerging diseases, global pandemics and/or deliberate biological attacks?

5. Education.  In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?

6. Energy. What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

7. Food. What steps would you take to ensure the health, safety and productivity of America’s food supply?

8. Fresh Water. What steps, if any, should the federal government take to secure clean, abundant fresh water for all Americans?

9. The Internet. What role, if any, should the federal government play in managing the Internet to ensure its robust social, scientific, and economic role?

10. Ocean Health. What role should the federal government play domestically and through foreign policy to protect the environmental health and economic vitality of the oceans?

11. Science in Public Policy. How will you ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are fully informed by the best available scientific and technical information, and that the public is able to evaluate the basis of these policy decisions?

12. Space. What should America’s space exploration and utilization goals be in the 21st century and what steps should the government take to help achieve them?

13. Critical Natural Resources.  What steps should the federal government take to ensure the quality and availability of critical natural resources?

14. Vaccination and Public Health. What actions would you support to enforce vaccinations in the interest of public health, and in what circumstances should exemptions be allowed?

The likely outcome of this will be short, intentionally vague responses in writing from each of the campaigns.  Business as usual, and not likely detailed enough to effectively outline what the candidates’ actual policy responses would be.  But it’s a useful exercise and sign that science and technology folks are just as special as the other special interests that get their questionnaires answered by campaigns.

I do appreciate the breadth of science (and technology!) topics in the questions, and the avoidance of needlessly provocative questions about what the candidates believe with respect to certain scientific concepts.

But I’m not persuaded that the most important scientific debate is one that should be had between Presidential candidates.

Back in May over at Slate, Pascal Zachary listed three questions that he would ask the candidates, but I think should be asked of the U.S. research enterprise as a whole:

  1. How can we convert research advances into employment for ordinary Americans and also manage the inevitable job-destroying tendencies of some federally funded innovations?
  2. Is there a way to discuss efficiency and outcomes in S&T without setting off a firestorm among researchers? And if spending cuts have to take place to reduce the federal deficit, how can policymakers justify continued investment in research?
  3. What is the role of the Department of Defense in providing S&T that benefits all Americans, instead of just addressing national security needs? DOD has a long tradition of giving birth to important technologies, like drone aircraft, while civilian departments have less impressive records achievement. So should the Defense Department also be tasked with adapting to climate change or creating and implementing alternative energy sources?

There are other questions one can ask to challenge the conventional wisdom of how the U.S. organizes, funds, and conducts its scientific and technical research and development.  Maybe we can’t do better than the current system.  But to not ask the question, to not test that hypothesis, is just a little bit cowardly.  We evaluate individual research programs frequently, funding applications all the time.  But the whole system?  We tend to muddle through between periods of punctuated equilibrium.

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One thought on “Is It A Science Debate If The Questions Are In Writing?

  1. Pingback: As For Science, Dear Candidate? | Tangled Up in Blue Guy

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