View from Sapsucker Woods: Imagine a World Where Politicians Discuss Science

By John Fitzpatrick
April 15, 2008
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“Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we, the undersigned, call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of the environment, medicine and health, and science and technology policy.”

—From the Science Debate 2008

Recently I joined a growing throng of citizens, scientists, and public leaders in signing a citizens’ initiative calling for this year’s major presidential candidates to discuss their views on scientific issues and science policy in a debate-style forum. The initiative, dubbed Science Debate 2008, does not ask that candidates pass a high-profile “science quiz,” but rather that they answer a series of questions chosen by a nonpartisan panel of experts, from thousands of questions submitted by citizens. The initiative is cosponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and even the Council on Competitiveness. More than 150 leading American universities and not-for-profit organizations have signed on, with more joining the ranks every day.

I am heartened by this groundswell of expectation that our country’s leaders must be versed in the crucial importance of science and how to discuss it. Science should not be viewed as the purview of specialists. It is really nothing more than organized curiosity about what our world and universe are made of, how they work, and what we humans can create with the raw materials. Our understanding of such matters will always be incomplete, but from Aristotle and Copernicus to Darwin and Einstein, human understanding (and the quality of our lives) has marched forward via the simple ingredients of careful observation, inquiry, experimentation, logical deduction, inference, and follow-up observation. Maintaining a willingness to be “surprised by the facts” and even to be proven wrong is a hallmark of the scientific approach. Such an attitude does not require specialized training but simply an appreciation of our unique privilege to be forever curious and to have our questions answered and progressively refined through fact, reason, and trial and error.

I appreciate that faith, myth, blind optimism, and even (I suppose) partisan politics also play crucial roles in human culture. Properly applied, these and other social and spiritual expressions inform many of our ethical choices, including aspects of science policy. But should we not demand leaders who articulate the lost opportunities and grave dangers that befall societies that fail to embrace rational, evidence-based decision-making as an essential route to advancement? Should we not demand that research and science education become bedrock national priorities? History provides copious evidence of their value. Most of the world’s gross national products today are made up of goods and services developed through scientific innovation and discovery. Conversely, failure to heed warnings about ecological consequences from human activities has time and again resulted in large-scale calamities that were otherwise avoidable.

It is no exaggeration to declare that the future of life on earth—not to mention the quality of human existence within it—hangs on the balance of decisions and behaviors executed by humans during the coming decade. How we control emissions, such as carbon, mercury, and sulphur, and how we invest in alternative, non-polluting energy sources will profoundly influence global climates for centuries. Besides energy-related issues, we need comprehensive national policies on science education, stem cell research, pandemic diseases, fisheries and ocean management, freshwater supplies, endangered species recovery, and health care, to name just a few major issues that face our next president.

The short-term goal of Science Debate 2008 is to help voters measure how each candidate understands the role of science and approaches the challenge of making informed decisions. The long-term goal should be to highlight the crucial role of science and science literacy to our future as a happy and competitively successful society living in harmony with a healthy natural world.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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