Whether the issue is global warming, embryonic stem cell research, ballistic missile defense or the future of the world's oceans, the same bass line thumps in the background: Sound political decision-making relies, more than ever before, on accurate scientific information.
As advances in science and technology continually transform our world, policymaking will inevitably depend more and more on accurate scientific and technical information. Which means that in order to be a successful world leader today, a politician must have an effective means of accessing and applying the latest science.
This fact -- combined with the undisputed importance of scientific research and innovation to national prosperity and competitiveness -- explains the recent emergence of a group called ScienceDebate2008. Under its auspices, scientists, university presidents, industry leaders, elected representatives and others have endorsed a call for the current U.S. presidential candidates to participate in a debate, or a series of debates, dedicated to issues in science and technology. More specifically, the candidates should answer questions about the environment, medicine and health, and science and technology policy.
Among those who have endorsed this appeal so far are 11 Nobel laureates (including former Caltech President David Baltimore and former NIH Director Harold Varmus), former presidential science advisors John Gibbons and Neal Lane, Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, retired Martin Marietta Chief Executive Norm Augustine, present and former presidents of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science and more than 50 others.
When you think about it, the need for a debate on science is incontrovertible. It would reveal which candidates are best equipped to tackle contentious science-based issues, and it would help raise the level of scientific literacy across the board in this country.
A recent National Academy of Sciences' report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," suggests that the United States may soon falter in the global economy without a concerted effort to ensure continuing technological innovation and competitiveness.
Today, countries such as South Korea, Singapore and China are producing a far higher percentage of science and engineering graduates than the United States. Indeed, as Bill Gates has put it, "When I compare our high schools with what I see when I'm traveling abroad, I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow." Test results released last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reinforce the concern: U.S. students performed below the average of 30 countries in science and well below the average in math.
These dismaying facts present a fundamental challenge to our nation's future, one that our next president must have a plan for overcoming.
And, in fact, it's not going too far to say that science in its broadest sense -- by which we mean scientific thinking -- is crucial in every area of policymaking. Science requires a willingness to reject conclusions once they're shown to be in error, and it demands that all the data be considered, not just that which agrees with a priori opinions. A president capable of assessing scientific issues by weighing competing positions, and evaluating the evidence supporting them, could be expected to carry the same mode of reasoning over into other policy arenas where it's equally crucial.
That's why we need to hear from all of the candidates about where they stand on specific science-related issues, on U.S. competitiveness and, finally, on the broad role of science in the policymaking process. Our next president needn't be a memorizer of facts, but he or she most definitely should understand how to critically analyze data and should embrace a broad empiricism in national and world affairs.
Already we've seen science form the basis of some of the thorniest public policy issues in recent history, from the fate of Terri Schiavo to the fate of evolution in schools and the fate of the Earth. A presidential debate on science would help voters determine who among the candidates is up to the task of dealing with whatever comes next.