Even though the election of a new U.S. President is almost a year away, it’s hard to ignore the news media’s extensive coverage of the many candidates — their debates, their campaign speeches, their experience; almost anything they do or say is fair game for the press. However, science and engineering, for the most part, have gotten less attention than issues such as the economy, immigration, health care, homeland security, and gun control.
A recent public opinion poll by Science Debate and Research!America found that an overwhelming majority (87%) of Americans say it is important that candidates for President and Congress have a basic understanding of the science informing public policy, and 77% say that public policies should be based on the best available science. “We are living in a new age when science affects every aspect of public policy, and voters want candidates to give science issues like climate change, health care, GMO foods, and jobs in the new tech economy a higher priority,” says Science Debate chair Shawn Otto.
Science Debate is a nonpartisan, nonprofit initiative “dedicated to elevating science and engineering questions in our national civic dialogue” and “along the presidential campaign trail.” In 2008 and 2012, the presidential candidates responded in writing to 14 questions curated by Science Debate on scientific and technical challenges facing the nation, and their answers were published in Nature and Scientific American, respectively. This year, the organization is working toward a live, televised debate featuring crowdsourced questions on a wide range of topics. More than 44,000 people, including Nobel laureates, have already signed its online petition calling for one (https://www3.thedatabank.com/dpg/335/personal2.asp?formid=SD2008SU).
To prepare for such a debate, politicians should read “Policy: Twenty Tips for Interpreting Science Claims” (by William J. Sutherland, et al., Nature, Nov. 21, 2013, pp. 335–337). The authors explain that it is important for policy-makers to understand that differences and chance cause variation, no measurement is exact, correlation does not imply causation, regression to the mean can mislead, extrapolating beyond the data is risky, and a host of other key concepts.
Blake Porter, a neuroscientist pursuing a PhD at New Zealand’s Univ. of Otago, proposed on his blog (www.blakeporterneuro.com) that the debate be hosted by scientists instead of journalists or talk show hosts. “Imagine how great it would be to see Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson moderate a political debate. They would not let misinformed opinions suffice for answers, as we have seen so often in political debates,” he says.
The mission of AIChE’s Public Affairs and Information Committee (PAIC) is to provide timely, technically sound information to the public, public officials, and AIChE members. At the recent Annual Meeting, PAIC held a briefing on three critical public policy issues — advanced manufacturing, the food-energy-water nexus, and climate change — at which the speakers encouraged chemical engineers to educate themselves on important public policy issues and to participate in federal, state, and local policy-making efforts.
The Science Debate effort provides an opportunity to do that. You can help shape the debate by submitting a question and/or voting for your favorites; go to http://questions.sciencedebate.org/forums/283644-2016-presidential-science-debate.
Cynthia F. Mascone, Editor-in-Chief
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