A Role for Science in Political Discourse


(This 1127th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 28, 2012.)


By the time this column is published we will have had three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate. The topics covered have all been important: jobs, the nation's debt, taxes, defense spending, healthcare and foreign affairs. But a major area has not been explored in any of them. That area is science.


Why science?


Science has been a driving force in this country. Since World War II, it is estimated that the leading empowerment of this nation's economic gains has been scientific innovation.


Consider a few of those areas of progress. Our country has played an important role in the development of computer and communication technology. Our remarkable advances in biology and genetics are addressing serious problems related to human health and agriculture. (One outcome of our medical advances has been our national life expectancy. It increased from 50 to over 77 years just in the 20th century.) We have also sent rockets beyond the limits of our planet's gravity and our pioneers have explored our moon's surface.


We have seen those activities lead to the development of whole new industries: for example, the widespread biotechnical industries with one center at North Carolina's Research Triangle and a developing center at the University at Buffalo, the information-related industries of Silicone Valley in Washington and the aero-space industries of Florida and Texas.


To fuel these developments and to provide workers in their support the scientific education provided by our colleges and universities has been upgraded.


All that may be true, but why should this topic intrude into politics?


Shawn Lawrence Otto has stated the problem: "Despite its history and today's unprecedented riches from science, the U.S. has begun to slip off of its science foundation. Indeed, in this election cycle ... several major party contenders for political office took positions that can only be described as 'antiscience': against evolution, human-induced climate change, vaccines, stem cell research, and more. A former ... governor even warned that his own political party was in danger of becoming 'the antiscience party.'


"Such positions could typically be dismissed as nothing more than election-year posturing except that they reflect an anti-intellectual conformity that is gaining strength in the U.S. at precisely the moment that most of the important opportunities for economic growth, and serious threats to the well-being of the nation, require a better grasp of scientific issues. By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation's founders, the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before."


In response to this situation in 2007 Otto and five other scientists and science writers tried to get candidates Obama and McCain to participate in a science debate. They formed a website, ScienceDebate.org, which immediately went viral: within a few days 38,000 visitors had signed in. They included dozens of Nobel laureates, heads of several major corporations, a number of members of Congress of both parties, leaders of major universities and almost all major science organizations.


Neither candidate agreed to a public debate but both responded to a series of questions developed through the web forum. Again this year candidates Obama and Romney have addressed the questions posed by the forum. The topics relate to: innovation and the economy, climate change, research and the future, pandemics and biosecurity, education, energy, food, freshwater, the internet, ocean health, science in public policy, space, critical natural resources and vaccination and public health.


Their answers were published in the October 17 issue of Scientific American and were rated by a team of scientists. Neither candidate scored well: the better of the two scores was only 44 out of 70.


But at least they responded and their answers make interesting reading. They may be accessed through the ScienceDebate.org website.


This year the same questions were posed to congressional leaders and the heads of science committees. Their responses were far from universal. Of House members 6 of 16 members responded and only 3 of 17 Senators did respond. We can be pleased that Congressman Timothy Bishop, the only New Yorker included among those polled, did respond.


I urge you to read and consider the debate responses as you determine your vote next week because science is important to this nation's future.-- Gerry Rising