Science and Politics

The call for a presidential science debate went unheeded, but it was worthwhile.

By | September 1, 2008

On November 4, 2008, voters in the United States will elect their 44th President. They also vote in the 111th United States Congress, including all 440 members of the United States House of Representatives (435 voting members and 5 non-voting delegates), and 33 of the 100 members of the senate.

In the run-up to the election, lobby groups have tried harder than ever before to get science on the agenda. The boldest move was Science Debate 2008 (, a crusade for "a presidential debate on science and America's future." This initiative garnered unanimous support from universities and other science-based organizations, including The Scientist.

Realistically, however, there was never any hope of a science debate. The candidates would need days of coaching to appear competent on the wide and complex range of subjects that could be raised, something that they have neither the time nor, I suspect, inclination to do.

It wouldn't have been all that informative anyway. McCain and Obama may have different views on science, but how likely is it that these would be teased out in a presidential debate? They are both going to approve tackling climate change, curing cancer and bringing down fuel costs - who doesn't? This same problem also dogs, to an extent, the other major effort to inject science into this election, Research!America's "Your Candidates-Your Health" questionnaire ( There are some differences here - Obama is more forthcoming and supportive of science - but there aren't many.

And the debate would have alienated a majority of the electorate, who neither know nor care about science policy. Or any other substantive issue. This election is simply the Superbowl of hype; even with the country in a significant economic recession and embroiled in a sickening conflict in Iraq, the personalities of the candidates and their entourages are all that seem to matter.

Despite this seemingly negative assessment, I believe that Your Candidates-Your Health and Science Debate 2008 have been worthwhile. They have raised the profile of science modestly in the media and among the public (YC-YH reports a few thousand visits per month; unfortunately SD2008 were unable to give me any statistics). And they have primed the candidates on the practical importance that science and technology will have once they get into power.

It's a start. But for science to have a more powerful voice in the running of affairs, we need more. More grassroots science initiatives that focus on innovation policy, climate change, stem cells, energy and all the rest. And we can expect groups like Research!America to take the lead. The question is, do we as a community have the backbone to support them?

It's easier than you may think to get involved in politics, even if you have only hours to spare - see our Careers feature, on page 73, for tips on how to participate. We at The Scientist will play our part by offering a free subscription to all members of the 111th Congress, plus relevant members of the Executive branch. We'll let you know who takes us up on the offer in the new year.

The other critical need, the one that we focus on in this issue, is to increase the influence on policy of scientists and science-savvy advisors. Such individuals can push for more evidence-based analysis in decision making, help bolster federal support for research and testify to the wonders that science does for the nation's global prestige. For an illustration of the positive impact that distinguished, committed individuals can have, read the feature on page 30.

Not had enough of politics yet? Just for you, detailed coverage of the election from a life sciences bent, can be found on our Web minisite at There you can debate the relative merits of the candidates, have your say on the current president's track record, and take part in a lighthearted poll on which scientist would make the best President.

A word of warning for those who'd actually like to see a scientist in the White House: Be careful what you wish for! I remember the carnage caused by a certain chemist in 10 Downing Street, one Margaret Hilda Thatcher. I shudder to think what a like-minded President would do to this country and its science.


Avatar of: Shawn Otto

Shawn Otto

Posts: 1

September 4, 2008

Hi Richard -\n\nWe since have our stats software repaired: in the last week we?ve had more than 75,000 page views, the vast majority on the 14 Q & A (data for today not yet available)\n\nShawn Otto\nScience Debate 2008
Avatar of: Stephen Dolle

Stephen Dolle

Posts: 16

September 4, 2008

While it is tough to arrange a presidential debate only on topics of science, matters of science will be more critical in the 2008 election than in any past. We have already seen some, and we will see more substantive presidential debate on matters of science.\n\nDiscussions on energy and related sciences will lead the charge. Energy is the No. 1 issue in this 2008 election as it is a double issue of costs /availabilty vs adverse environmental consequences. Next, is health care as it relates to major R&D, its costs, and efficacy of routine treatments. Thirdly, are advances in technology which drive so much of our economy. I believe all three science sectors favor the Obama/Biden platform, but would be excellent debate theatre!\n\nAll of us in the sciences sector should demand improved coverage of science in the election. Science debate would seem to favor Senator Obama due to his more recent schooling, whereas the GOP VP Palin's younger age and environmental interests would balance out Senator McCain's objections. Note I only included the environmental sciences as it related to energy as many still challenge the reports, and it is best to avoid having a "debate within a debate."\n\nClearly, the pinacle of all science debates is that of creationism v evolution. And based upon the GOP's vice-presidential pick of Governor Palin as a creationist, the GOP appears eager to kill most discussion on this topic. With Obama seeming to have a clear political advantage, one would expect him to be eager to lead a renewed sciences effort, that would compel the GOP to engage, or appear feeble. The creationists view could easily become a liability as to embracing 21st century economic development fueled by new products and discoveries in the field of science.\n\nTruly science's best marketing will come by way of featuring new products and discoveries, where television could play a larger role like it did in the late 1950's, when then actor Ronald Reagan hosted "GE Theatre."\n\nAs a voter, I am offended when a candidate is unable to grasp key science concepts and data when discussing a major science or technology issue. As voters, we should DEMAND more factual coverage of science topics when they impact a candidates understanding of such things as energy, health policy, military perogatives, economic growth, and so on.\n\nStephen Dolle\na.k.a. "MacGyver"\nInventor of DiaCeph Test, Used\nto Direct own Brain Surgeries\nDOLLE COMMUNICATIONS
Avatar of: Anita Allen

Anita Allen

Posts: 11

September 18, 2008

Dear Richard,\n\nThe job of an editor is never easy, and I must thank you and your staff over the years for all your hard work and congratulate you-all for a well-deserved prize.\n\nScience met politics head on in the form of President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. It started with a notice by him in our parliament in 1999 of instructions to his Minister of Health to review and report on a category of chemotherapy drugs targetting cell receptors, whose functioning though extensive was ill-understood - and remains so (Refer your Lefkowiz interview)- and it isn't the only cellular bit that is ill-understood.By July 2000, the world's science and political community were embroiled in face-to-face discussions, which had by then mushroomed into state security concerns. The diplomats were there, NIH, CDC, four hand picked members rushed out by President Clinton at the last minute,international and local scientists, heads of science institutes, even members and affiliates of pharmaceuticals. All of them had their say behind closed doors but video taped at two meetings (May and July). A six week period between them was for participants to debate and discuss, establish commonness and work on the way forward to solve differences. The entire corps who were invited by the Minister of Health refused to discuss anything on the Internet with those invited by President Mbeki. In March 2001 the chief moderator, South Africa's highest ranking science administrator, with a PhD in microbiology from University of California, published his assessment of the status quo re the science underpinning theories. The conclusion of his succinct report was that there was a schism in science, not based on ideology, but differing interpretation of the same data. What should have happened in the popular media was an immediate shift of attention to understanding the differing interpretation - and the study that the combined NIH/CDC and SA equivalent Department of Health/Medical Research Foundation announced at a press conference as "ending the debate once and for all".\n\nIt was all ignored by editors for the simple reason that for most of them it was news that there was any debate at all or they knew vaguely but who can go against James Watson, David Baltimore, Robert Gallo, Varmus, Fauci and Venter and bring them to book on the science? Good question, I think, from my perspective over here on the southern tip of Africa, where they all became familiar along with their science. Some of them are among your biologists for president. (My advice to Barack Obama here.\n\nThe problems of media taking sides with scientists who jumped to conclusions in 1984 in the absence of a big picture and fixing them in stone as dogma is chickens coming home to roost.\n\nFor politicians, there's no better case study than President Mbeki's Great AIDS Debate, just how it has progressed or not progressed in the case of most media - and in science journals. After all if you're a science laureate, Lasker award-winner, Time Man of the Year, member of institutes of science and medicine, on the board of scientific publications, what's an editor to do?\n\nOn September 11, 2008, Africans celebrated another recalcitrant nation on the way to peace. It wouldn't have been possible without Mbeki and his team who at all times retained the support of Southern African Development Community nations, and African Union. The centre held, all the way to AU, but until everything was signed and sealed, the media judged Zimbabwe as one of Mbeki's biggest follies. Now the media is talking Nobel Peace Prize, because Zimbabwe is just one of several timeous interventions by Mbeki in the interests of peace.\n\nMbeki's other folly according to the media, is his intervention to review the science of HIV/AIDS, which inevitably pulled in biology in toto as the science of life. The 2001 report was labelled "Interim" there has not yet been a final report. The bee-all and end-all collaborative study came to naught, with scientists involved unable to arrive at any conclusions of any kind. But there is no way going back and what Mbeki started will be concluded. Now that the media has been brought to heel on Zimbabwe it's a case of one down, one to go. If Obama is serious about change then it would be advisable to seek the opinion of a head of state who has had 10 years of experience at the hands of science - and to find scientists whose work is ignored even when it is published in prestigious journals of record.\n\nThank you for your science and politics initiative. Your four hopefuls to head Obama's science office and get it back into the White House don't look like change, just more of the same that hasn't worked. - Anita Allen, Ekurhuleni, South Africa. \n

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