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Science and Politics

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

Richard Gallagher

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 (www.sciencedebate2008.com/www/index.php), 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...

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 (www.yourcandidatesyourhealth.org/presidential.php). 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 www.thescientist.com/election. 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.

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