' Absolutely. A science debate? Not so sure. '
Commences Nature 's lead editorial this week, but it goes on to observe :
Many of the great and good in US science... have joined an initiative calling for the American election campaigns to feature a science debate. Such is the groundswell of support that their call is starting to feel like an idea whose time has come, and indeed it may prove to be so...But in true scientific spirit, the proposal itself requires critical scrutiny....the campaign's website goes too far in saying that science and technology "may be the most important social issue of our time".
In reality, science and technology are a factor in many issues, sometimes a defining one, but most often not. They can and must inform political debate, but will rarely be at its centre. Take the key issue of climate change, which is at the top of the science debate list. The Bush administration's self-interested denialism and subsequent heel-dragging have infuriated informed opinion at home and abroad. But this anger, widely felt by scientists and others, should not lead us to raise science above other concerns out of a sense of slight.
The science of the Earth system is crucial to understanding climate change; that does not mean that climate is best debated as a science issue. Climate change should indeed be debated by the ultimate contenders for the presidency... with expert interlocutors able to challenge claims and highlight both common ground and inconsistencies.
Scientific issues — how to deal with the uncertainties of climate sensitivity when deciding goals for emissions, or how far to shift federal research priorities towards near-to-medium-term innovation in alternative-energy systems — would play a key role in such a debate. But they would not be the whole story: tax policy, international trade, treaty law and foreign policy are just as crucial.
These doubts clearly reflect the debut in Nature of David Goldston s 'Party Of One ' column. He was chief of staff on the House Science Committee under its Republican chairman, Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New YorK. Asked by Andrew Revkin of the Times : "Couldn’t an argument be made that simply by having candidates in this forum it’d send message that science is important in many realms of policy?" Golston replied
" Who needs that message, and at what cost? Do either the public or the candidates not think science is important? I don’t think so... Scientists feel slighted that they’re not mentioned all the time. But actually, scientists are treated with a unique kind of deference... And a debate may not help in that regard. There are lots more reasons a debate could be problematic... putting science in an inherently divisive political context — exactly what scientists usually say they want to avoid...the questions that have been offered for a debate tend to be either
1) questions that aren’t really about science,
2) questions on which one would not want to encourage snap judgments by candidates,
3) questions that while important, are so in the weeds that Presidents usually don’t get involved with them even when they’re in office, or
4) questions likely to elicit platitudes.
.... badgering lawmakers can be a more organized and effective activity than that choice of words might imply. But I’d list a number of things...educating students and the public; writing editorials, op-eds, blogs; advising political figures; participating... as individual citizens as opposed scientists..how...NASA supporters have used e-mail campaigns to affect Obama’s position on space is interesting.