Science on the Campaign Trail

In November 2007, a group of six citizens decided to do something to elevate science and technology in the national dialogue. They created Science Debate 2008, an initiative calling for a presidential debate on science policy. They put up a Web site, and began encouraging friends and colleagues to sign a petition calling for the debate. Within weeks 38,000 scientists, engineers, and other concerned citizens had signed on. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Academies, and the Council on Competitiveness (CoC) joined as cosponsors, although Science Debate 2008 remained independent, financed by individual contributions and volunteer labor. Within months it grew to represent virtually all of U.S. science, including almost every major science organization, the presidents of over 100 universities, prominent corporate leaders, Nobel laureates, and members of Congress. All told, the signatory organizations represented over 125 million Americans, making it arguably the largest political initiative in the history of U.S. science.

The need could not have been clearer. Science and technology dominate every aspect of our lives and thus heavily influence all of our policy considerations. Yet although nearly every major challenge facing the nation revolves around science policy, and at a time when the United States is falling behind in several key measures, the candidates and the news media virtually ignored these issues.

Others noted this problem as well. The League of Conservation Voters analyzed the questions asked of the then-candidates for president by five top prime-time journalists—CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, MSNBC’s Tim Russert, Fox News’ Chris Wallace and CBS’s Bob Schieffer—who among them had conducted 171 interviews with the candidates by January 25, 2008. Of the 2,975 questions they asked, only six mentioned the words “climate change” or “global warming,” arguably the largest policy challenge facing the nation. To put that in perspective, three questions mentioned UFOs.

Armed with their list of supporters, the Science Debate team pitched the story to hundreds of news outlets around the country. The blogosphere buzzed over the initiative and eventually rose to the top one-quarter of 1% of most visited Web sites worldwide. By any measure, coming off the Bush administration’s fractured relationship with U.S. science, the tremendous number of prominent individuals publicly calling for a presidential science debate was news, at least to some news outlets. But while “netroots” coverage exploded and foreign press picked up the story, not a single U.S. political news page and very few political blogs covered it. The idea of a science debate was being effectively shut out of the discussion by the mainstream press. The question was why.

The team investigated and identified a problem in U.S. news that goes beyond the fact that many news outlets are cutting their science sections. Even in outlets that still have one, editors generally do not assign political reporters to cover science stories, and science reporters don’t have access to the political pages. The business and economics beat and the religion and ethics beat have long since crossed this barrier onto the political page. But the science and technology beat remains ghettoized. Today, in an era when many of the biggest policy stories revolve around science, the U.S. press seems to be largely indifferent to science policy.

This situation tends to have an echo-chamber effect on candidates. Science Debate organizers secured broadcast partners in PBS’s NOW and NOVA and a venue at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. But the candidates responded that it wouldn’t work for their schedules. Tellingly, it did work for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to attend a “Compassion Forum” at Harrisburg’s Messiah College just days before the cancelled science debate, where, ironically, they answered questions about science. John McCain ignored both events.

Probing further, the Science Debate team learned that science was seen as a niche topic by the campaigns, and a presidential debate dedicated to science policy issues such as climate change, innovation, research, health care, energy, ocean health, stem cells, and the like was viewed as requiring extensive preparation and posing high risk for a limited return.

The tide turns

Science Debate 2008 wanted to test this assumption, so it partnered with Research!America and hired Harris to conduct a national poll. The results were astounding: Fully 85% of U.S. adults said the presidential candidates should participate in a debate to discuss key policy problems facing the United States, such as health care, climate change, and energy, and how science can help tackle them. There was virtually no difference across party lines. Contrary to the candidates’ assumptions, science is of broad concern to the public.

Next, Science Debate worked to reassure the campaigns that it was not out to sandbag one or another candidate by showing the candidates the questions in advance. The team culled the roughly 3,400 questions that had been submitted by supporters online into general categories and, bringing in the AAAS, the Academies, CoC, Scientists and Engineers for America, and several other organizations, developed “the 14 top science questions facing America.”

Armed with the results of the national polling, the continuing stream of prominent new supporters, and the 14 questions, the Science Debate team went back to the two remaining candidates and asked them to answer the questions in writing and to attend a televised forum.

Although the candidates still refused to debate, instead attending yet another faith forum at Saddleback Church in California, Science Debate 2008 was able to obtain written answers from both candidates. The Obama campaign tapped the expertise of his impressive campaign science advisory team to help him answer. The McCain campaign relied on their brilliant and multitasking senior domestic policy advisor, the economist and former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

Once the answers were in hand, the Science Debate initiative was finally “news” from a political editor’s perspective. It was providing the candidates’ positions in their own words on a wide variety of substantive issues, and suddenly the floodgates opened. In the final month of the campaigns, reporters were looking for ways to differentiate the candidates, and political reporters started taking apart the nuances in the answers’ rhetoric. Obama, for example, expressly talked about a variety of international approaches to addressing climate change, and reporters noted that McCain remained silent on international issues and steered far away from the Kyoto Protocol.

The responses highlighted other, broader differences between the candidates. Senator Obama stressed his plans to double the federal agency research budgets, whereas Senator McCain stressed further corporate deregulation and tax credits to stimulate more corporate R&D, coupled with big money prizes to reward targeted breakthroughs. This philosophical difference carried through in answers on energy policy, education, innovation, and other areas. Senator Obama’s team further refined his answers into his official science policy platform. Senator McCain’s answer to the stem cell question came briefly into play in the race when his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, contradicted it in an interview with James Dobson and was subsequently described as “going rogue.” In another answer and followup interview, Senator McCain claimed to have been responsible for the development of wi-fi and Blackberry-like devices, which caused a minor tempest. Senator Obama made news when 61 Nobel laureates, led by Obama science advisory team leader Harold Varmus, signed a letter in support of his campaign, and the answers of both candidates to the questions of Science Debate 2008 served as the basis for a letter signed by 178 organizations urging the winner to appoint a science advisor by January 20 and elevate the post to cabinet level.

References to the candidates’ science policy views eventually appeared in almost every major U.S. paper and in a wide variety of periodical and broadcast outlets across the country and around the world. All told, Science Debate 2008 generated over 800 million media impressions and was credited with elevating the level of discourse. No matter which candidate one supported, this level of discussion is healthy, some might even say critical, for a 21st-century United States.

Looking forward, much work remains to be done to repair America’s fractured relationship with science, and the Science Debate initiative and others like it should continue. Scientists must participate in the national dialogue, which requires a plurality of voices to be successful. President-elect Obama has laid out an ambitious science policy focused on some of the greatest challenges facing the nation, but harsh economic times and continued ideological opposition to science may make implementing that policy difficult. To succeed, the president will need the support of Congress, and members of Congress, in turn, the support of their constituents. In such an environment, the public’s understanding and appreciation of science policy will be important to the nation’s success, and the involvement of scientists will be critical in that process.

Shawn Lawrence Otto () is a cofounder and chief executive officer of Science Debate 2008. Sheril Kirshenbaum is a cofounder of Science Debate 2008 and a marine biologist at Duke University.

Your participation enriches the conversation

Respond to the ideas raised in this essay by writing to [email protected]. And read what others are saying in our lively Forum section.

Cite this Article

Otto, Shawn Lawrence, and Sheril Kirshenbaum. “Science on the Campaign Trail.” Issues in Science and Technology 25, no. 2 (Winter 2009).

Vol. XXV, No. 2, Winter 2009