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So Far, Yet So Close

Whatever Happens in 2008, the Science Debate 2012 Initiative Starts Now

SOURCE: ScienceDebate2008, SP The chief lessons learned from ScienceDebate2008: ignore naysayers, and never give up.

Two days from now, on April 18, something unprecedented could have happened. The remaining U.S. presidential candidates from both major political parties could have accepted an invitation from Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Council on Competitiveness…and about a gazillion other organizations and individuals calling upon them to participate in a public debate on United States science and technology policy.

How is more speech about science policy by politicians harmful?

But they didn’t. No candidate took the lead, not even Hillary Clinton, who had previously sought to claim the mantle of “science candidate” with a major speech on the 50th anniversary of Sputnik in October of last year. Overall, from the candidates, the silence on science and technology was deafening. This remarkable opportunity to inject science policy into the national political discourse during campaign season was, accordingly, squandered.

A lot of hay has since been made about what the candidates have decided to debate and discuss instead of science—notably, Clinton and Obama recently participated in a forum on “Faith in Public Life” at Pennsylvania’s Messiah College. Meanwhile, there’s a new invite out—the central organization behind the April 18 Philadelphia proposal, ScienceDebate2008, has now added various PBS programs and public television stations to its coalition and called for a nationally broadcast event in Oregon on a Friday in May.

So it’s still conceivable that a presidential science policy debate may happen this year. But as a member of the ScienceDebate2008 steering committee (now speaking only for myself), I hardly think I’m betraying any inside information when I say that given the candidates’ failure thus far to commit, we can’t bank on it.

Accordingly, now may not be too early to draw some lessons from what was—whatever happens next—a remarkable effort. Some members of the SD08 steering committee and I recently published thoughts along these lines as a “Policy Forum” article in Science, but I’d like to go farther.

First, let’s get this out of the way: Ignore the Naysayers. Nature columnist David Goldston (subscription) and several others have actually criticized the ScienceDebate2008 initiative, but I don’t envy them the intellectual ground they’re trying to defend. I mean, come on: How can you seriously argue that a publicly televised presidential debate about science policy is going to be a bad thing on balance–that it somehow will hurt either science, politics, or national discourse? How is more speech about science policy by politicians harmful?

Answer: It isn’t. Or at least, any argument suggesting more public debate is bad faces an almost ridiculously high burden of proof.

We didn’t have a big infrastructure—heck, we didn’t even have a budget. We relied on volunteers, motivation, and conviction.

Second, let’s admit it: Whatever Happens in 2008, We Can Build on the Experience in 2012. As the ScienceDebate2008 steering committee observes in Science, “The extraordinary speed at which ScienceDebate2008 became a national cause célèbre demonstrates that the U.S. scientific establishment can be quickly organized when motivated.” True, but that speed was necessary in part because we got something of a late start in organizing. This initiative didn’t really get going until November and December of 2007, in part because by then many of us were fed up with the repeated failure of the candidates to discuss science policy and of debate moderators to ask them about it. Alas, some candidates were already on the verge of dropping out of the race by the time we were really running. While not all ScienceDebate2008 organizers and participants may agree, in my view the best time to get the candidates to talk about science policy is when there are lots of them, rather than after the field has narrowed and political campaigns and consultants become increasingly risk averse. So in 2012, forces advocating a science policy debate can be ready to pounce much earlier in the game.

The third point is perhaps the most important one to me personally: No Matter What Happens This Year, There is No Excuse for Science To Run and Hide Again From Politics. One of my greatest fears is that if no debate ultimately occurs this year, ScienceDebate2008 will be viewed as a failure, rather than a creative first step towards a broader engagement between science and society. To me that would be not only wrongheaded but tragic. Unfortunately, though, there’s a troubling history of scientists making experimental forays into politics and then backing away again. Consider a famous episode from 1964, when a group of luminaries formed Scientists and Engineers for Johnson-Humphrey, an organization that powerfully attacked Republican candidate Barry Goldwater for his bluster about nuclear weapons. The scientist-activists helped damage Goldwater’s campaign, but the frontal assault discomforted many researchers who viewed the role of science as being to inform policy from a detached vantage point, rather than to lobby directly in favor of candidates. Accordingly, after the 1964 election the research community largely retreated to the sidelines of politics rather than building on what had been started.

With ScienceDebate2008, we have to prevent a similar retreat.

Perhaps one way of doing so will be to remember what is, to my mind, the most uplifting lesson to come from all of this: Think Outside the Box, and Never Give Up. ScienceDebate2008 came out of nowhere, and got farther than anyone would have expected faster than anyone would have imagined. In Science, we observe that this was partly a function of who formed the organization and how we spread the word: We didn’t come from the science establishment, and we didn’t rely on the mainstream media. We were inspired individuals, unattached, uncommitted, and we used blogs and to activate the netroots. We didn’t have a big infrastructure—heck, we didn’t even have a budget. We relied on volunteers, motivation, and conviction.

If we’re ever going to succeed in pushing science and society closer together, through an initiative like this one or in some other way, these virtues will remain crucial.

So while we still don’t know yet what we can say about 2008, I can confidently announce this: See you in 2012.

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum. He helped to form ScienceDebate2008 but does not speak for the organization.


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