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3 Science Questions to Ask U.S. Presidential Candidates

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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As you may already be aware from my previous posts, The Guardian U.S. and NYU’s Studio 20 journalism lab have teamed up to push a project called The Citizens’ Agenda into the media discourse surrounding the U.S. presidential 2012 election. The idea: find out what you–the citizens–want the candidates to be discussing over the next four months – usually meaning questions of substance about policy rather than horserace and gotcha questions so pervasive in mainstream media.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a call for the Scientific American community to provide us with the three most important science-related questions that they would like to see the candidates asked by the media or during presidential debates in the fall. The Scientific American community is one (actually the first to have this finished) of a number of topical communities providing questions. Naturally, our readers are interested in science, so we are focused on  the science topics here.

Our Facebook page post soliciting question received over 120 comments (as well as 104 Likes and 61 Shares). The blog post itself got an additional 18 comments. We asked you “What three science questions do you think the U.S. presidential candidates should answer before we vote on November 6?” and since some comments included multiple questions, we got a grand total of 246 questions!

I am extremely happy with the quality and quantity of the submitted questions. You took this seriously and came up with a number of excellent questions.

An informal scan of the questions leads me to categorize questions by focus. There are: questions that ask for candidates to state science facts; questions that ask candidates’ stances on hot and politicized science issues; questions that ask about the role of science in governing; and fun/silly/provocative questions

There is value in all four types of questions. Each one of them is multi-layered and is actually trying to examine the following:

- are candidates reasonably educated in basic science?
- are candidates well informed about current understanding of various aspects of the world?
- to what extent will candidates apply scientific knowledge and advice by scientists in shaping policy, as opposed to interest groups that may or may not adhere to empirical knowledge in their agendas?
- to what extent will candidate’s style of governing resemble scientific method: observing and studying the world as it really is (as opposed to what one wishes it to be), collecting and analyzing data, and applying best available remedies to the problems?

In short, all the questions are trying to get at this core issue: are the candidates reality-based?

But for purposes of our effort, we also had to classify the questions by topic.

Interestingly, the topic of greatest interest, judging from your responses (23 questions clearly and solely in this category), is Science Education – its value, its role in society, the role of federal government in regulating it, and the need for its reform and funding. Interestingly, Role of Government in Science (22 questions) is also mostly about science education, so we fused the two categories into one.

This question, by our reader Cherry Kersey probably captures it the best:

How important do you feel science and science related education is in young children and how would you affect change so that U.S. students are competitive with the rest of the western world in these key subjects?

Some other examples are:

Do you think that promotion of critical thinking is a primary goal of education?

What role does the federal government play in supporting scientific education, infrastructure and research?

From media reports, it seems the U.S.  lags behind many other developed countries in protecting the populace from harmful chemicals and substances. Our laws and regulations seem to be designed to protect business interests first and foremost, and only to protect the populace or environment when it has been clearly proven (for example, from a lot of people/animals dying or being sickened by something that has been on the market for a number of years) and there is public outrage. What would you do to address this?

How will you help the USA recapture its #1 place in the STEM sciences, and how is education part of this important agenda?

Do you support evidence based education? If not, how are we to improve education? If so, how soon can we get rid of No Child Left Behind, which had no pilot?

What is the cost of American college education relative to its value to students and to the nation at large? Please describe that cost/benefit ratio in terms of its distribution throughout the current population of students who are in college or who are about to attend. Is that ratio favorable or unfavorable? If less than favorable, what actions would you recommend as President to make it more favorable?

What role does the federal government play in supporting scientific education, infrastructure and research?

Can the decline in U.S. ranking in science be directly attributed to the anti-science policies of today’s conservatives, and what affects will the continuation of these policies have on the standing of the U.S. as a leader in science in the future?

Do you believe the federal government should place more emphasis on increasing the number of young Americans who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or not?

Are you going to seriously fund scientific research? How will science help you develop policy? What are you going to do to make the benefits of scientific research benefit the American people?

In your opinion, who gets to decide the truth of a scientific concept? The people, the experts, or the well-funded?

What are you going to do to increase the number of scientists in office, ensuring the people making scientific decisions are in fact qualified to do so?

Will you support reestablishment of the Office of Technology Assessment to aid officials in proper evaluation of complex scientific issues? If not, why?

How will science help you develop policy?

What government body do we have to thank for the most inventions applicable to modern daily life in the last 50 years? (Answer is NASA)


The second topic, with 18 questions focusing entirely on it, is Evolution, still a hot topic in this country. Our chosen question is by our reader Joseph Yaroch:

Explain why you think voters should care about your stance on evolution.

Here is a sampling of some other related questions:

Do you understand the role natural selection has played in the development of complex life over the last several billion years?

What is your opinion on the debate of evolutionary theory vs creationism?

Do you accept the theory of evolution? If so, do you accept that simply saying so is counter-intuitive to our current legal financial subsidies binding church & state?

Do humans and apes have a common ancestor?

What actions will be taken on school boards across the country that are eliminating scientific evidence of evolution from the curriculum?

Are you willing to defend separation of church and state and support the teaching of evolution in schools?


The third most exciting topic to our readers, with 17 questions clearly and solely in this category, is Climate Change. The most representative question comes from our reader Eli Hernandez is:

Is global warming and climate change significantly and negatively affected by human industrial and fossil fuel consumption activity and if so what is our Government’s Role and Responsibility in mediating a solution?

Some more examples:

What should the US role be in controlling climate change and what would you do to advance it?

Even the most devout global warming advocates grudgingly admit that proposed regulations would only delay the inevitable (if global warming is in fact occurring), while the political/economic costs of such regulation would be devastating to the United States. Are you factoring the cost vs. the benefits of global warming regulation in your policy decisions? Will you publish this analysis?

How does the greenhouse effect work, and do you think that humans are interfering with its proper function?

Do you accept the scientific consensus on climate change and what policies do you propose to prevent and mitigate its effects.

Do you agree with over 90% of the world’s climate scientists that humans are at least CONTRIBUTING to global warming?


The topics that follow are Space Exploration, Energy, Science Funding, Environment+Sustainability, Economics, GMOs, and general science questions (of the “what is an electron?” type), as well as a number of other categories with just 1-2 questions.

Finally, there was a “Silly” category, with only 12 questions (yes, guys, you were serious about this project!). Our favorite in the Silly category is this one, by nouseforaname.

Was Jar-Jar [Binks] possible through evolution?

Now I really wish someone would ask that question in the debate!


Now that the questions are out, watch the The Guardian U.S. site for updates. Spread the word. Let’s all try to push for these questions to actually get asked of the candidates in the debates, or in other media outlets.

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  1. 1. lamorpa 12:15 pm 05/23/2012

    Presidential question 1: Do you the difference between science, and (faith-based) pseudo-science (e.g. homeopathy, anti-vacciners, creationists, animals-that-can-predict-earthquakes, clairvoyance, etc.)

    Link to this
  2. 2. gesimsek 1:00 pm 05/23/2012

    Mezopotamia gave humanity cities and temples, Spanish and Dutch gave shipping and new world, Italy, France and Germany gave modern schools, hospitals and factories, British gave railways and telephone and the US gave cars, planes and computer. Is it time now to think what to give next or continue arguing where to bomb or screw financially?

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  3. 3. darioringach 2:54 pm 05/23/2012

    What do you think is a “fact”?

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  4. 4. kelecable 3:36 pm 05/23/2012

    Like the last question under climate change, I think any question concerning climate change should contain the “90%+ of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming” figure; otherwise, the politician can squirm out answering the question by questioning the premise itself. I don’t think this would be a problem with Obama, but I think it would be for Romney.

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  5. 5. geojellyroll 4:45 pm 05/23/2012

    99.9% of science is unrelated to these questions. Agenda driven questions hijack science to squeeze it into largely irrelevent political boxes.

    I’m an atheist and think cresationism is bunk…however, who cares? Physicists and chemists in bible-thumping states practice the same methodology as those in liberal states. An aeronautics engineer at Lougheed in conservative Georgia uses the same equations as one at Boeing in ‘blue’ Washington state.

    The questions to ask are those related to funding basic research and for support of math, physics, chemistry, etc in education.

    Obama claims to pray to the dead-guy-on-a-stick. So what does it matter how he couches his words on Creationism? The canned answers are well prepared for maximum political effect…not to promote science. Better to hear their plans on promoting a strong science infrasctructure.

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  6. 6. Suchorita Ruskin 5:44 pm 05/23/2012

    Did the writer of the article even notice that the following question is printed twice?
    “Do you support evidence-based education? If not, how are we to improve education? If so, how soon can we get rid of No Child Left Behind, which had no pilot?”
    Shoddy job!

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  7. 7. Bora Zivkovic 5:49 pm 05/23/2012

    Suchorita Ruskin – thank you for your editorial help. It is easy to make such an error when working with a large database and spreadsheet. I have fixed it now.

    There is no need to insert unpleasentries like “shoddy” in the comments, though, as such things tend to reflect more on the commenter than on the article itself.

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  8. 8. priddseren 5:50 pm 05/23/2012

    lol, so the only questions to ask to prove your science knowledge is flawed theories believed to be true?

    Yes I said that about evolution. I am not saying evolution is entirely wrong, it is mostly right, there are some flaws though, namely why it thinks mutations happen after the fact and how it would be mathematically impossible to randomly have billions of mutations occur and only the good one makes it through. Much more realistic to say all possible combinations of genetics began life and we are the result of a whittling down the useless stuff with the occasionally random mutation having an effect. Natural selection on the other hand, survival of the best equipped to survive certainly seems true.

    and climate change. Always that one and always the biblical theory that climate change is detrimental and only being caused by evil humans and their burning of fossil fuels. Never mind that none of this theory has been proven in a real experiment of any kind to support any of it, lets forget the cherry picked data and rigged computer models. What makes it real is some fool thought up the theory and a flock of sheep are all following it like automatons and so of course it is fact and any politician who thinks there may be a flaw in the theory or its proof, well he is just an idiot.

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  9. 9. Bora Zivkovic 6:15 pm 05/23/2012

    @geojellyroll – it is actually very interesting to read your comment, as it is so similar to many people’s thinking. I assume it was kind of a random walk of your thoughts, something we all often do, resulting in one paragraph contradicting the next as you are struggling within yourself about these questions.

    What is the President all about? Is the President supposed to be Scientist-in-Chief? Educator-in-Chief? What should the question really be trying to accomplish – what should we learn from the answer: that President knows science, or trusts scientists, or values science? Or something different?

    So, does it make sense to ask “science trivia” questions? Or should the questions be focused on application of science to policy? What would the answer to the former reveal, what the latter? Isn’t the policy-related question more likely to have a canned, prepared response?

    I think a well-designed question, even what on the first glance appears to be a “science trivia” question, can reveal a lot about the candidate depending on his answer.

    It can tell us if the candidate is generally well educated (i.e. knows the factoids that every high-school graduate should know).

    It can tell us if the candidate is curious and well-informed (i.e., knows where the current standing on science is in various areas, decades after the high-school textbooks factoids were studies by him).

    It can tell us if the candidate has courage to pronounce the answer clearly, in no wishy-washy manner, despite the potential to alienate half the electorate, or a significant part of his base (e.g., not being all mealy-mouthed about the realities of climate change or evolution which are established facts).

    It can tell us if the candidate is capable (like so many people, including scientists) of separating one’s own beliefs (despite cognitive dissonance) from dealing with the real world the way it really is.

    It can tell us if the candidate is likely to hew to empirical facts when pushing policy, rather than succumb to political pressures from interest groups.

    It may even tell us if the candidate operates in some way like a scientist, evaluating problems in a realistic manner, gathering and analyzing data, then proposing the best possible solutions.

    That is what we mean when we say “being reality-based”.

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  10. 10. geojellyroll 9:01 pm 05/23/2012

    That’s odd Bora..ask questions to which you already know the answer that will be given. Why? you aren’t intererested in the science but in the agenda…’making points’.

    Fortunately, in contrast, many of us here are more interested in science and the best way to promote critical thinking.

    Obama and Romney will both be atttending church… at least twice..every Sunday after July. Their ‘views’ are manufactured canned goods thought up by their handlers and nothing to do with any approach to science research or funding.

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  11. 11. geojellyroll 9:10 pm 05/23/2012

    priddserren: “…following it like automatons and so of course it is fact and any politician who thinks there may be a flaw in the theory or its proof, well he is just an idiot.”

    So true. Also, the irony is that it’s irrelevent to any actual realistic policy. ‘Climate change’ is number 98 on Obama’s list of priorities… all any leader is concerned about is growth,growth,growth. Imagine Obama being upset by increased car manufacturing, housing starts or a drop in gas prices?…ha! ha!. Hint…leaders don’t really care about the environment. whether on the left or the right they pander to green groups but at the end of the day want growth,growth,growth.

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  12. 12. Bora Zivkovic 10:58 pm 05/23/2012

    Eh, people are so jaded and cynical. Mostly because of the way media covers politics. Which is the purpose of The Citizen’s Agenda – follow the links, read about it.

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  13. 13. Dr. Strangelove 12:56 am 05/24/2012

    My questions to presidential candidates:

    1) will you pursue a manned mission to Mars? will you increase funding of NASA for space exploration and monitoring near earth asteroids?

    2) will you build a working fusion reactor? (the french are building one) will you promote nuclear energy?

    3) will you give incentives to electric cars, biofuels, solar, wind or geothermal?

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  14. 14. Mike from Ottawa 9:33 am 05/24/2012

    Re Evolution Question: Good grief, is that the best you could do? Anyone with even a passing familiarity with politicians can readily see how someone can spin their response to suit either side of the creationism – evolution fight.

    Just off the top of my head:

    ‘The American people should care about my stance on evolution because it demonstrates my commitment to the excellence of American science and of the American education system, ensuring our students are equipped with the best scientific knowledge and and keen critical thinking skills, able to compete in our technological world where science is the foundation of America’s future prosperity’

    Notice, that to answer your question, the candidate does not need to indicate whether he’s an evolutionist, ICDer, OECer or YECer. Nice thing is that anyone can use that answer, evolutionist or creationist as long as they’re not of the ‘science is a lie’ school of creationism. The rest of the creationists can say use that answer because they think that science, properly understood as never contradicting the Bible (as they would have it), supports their creationism and they’re all about directing ‘criticial thinking’ at evolution. You give a politician a question like that that positively sets up the platitudes and he’ll be just fine no matter what his views.

    As a bureaucrat with a legal education, I have an advantage over you sciency folk when it comes to spin and the techniques of evil in general but it also means I can spot easily spinable questions like that one. What you want for an evolution question is one that clearly flushes out the candidate and forces them to say where they stand – or forces them to be obviously and embarrassingly weasely as they try to avoid answering.

    What matters is if they accept science as the way we know things about the physical world and whether they’ll stand up for science. Just asking if they accept evolution gets the job done because the guy who’ll say yes will pay a political price for it in some places and so it is a good measure of whether or not the guy will actually stand up for science.

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  15. 15. gesimsek 4:07 pm 05/24/2012

    The definition of a state: It is a human organization to manage basic resources (earth, water, wind, fire and human labour) effectively and efficiently and to take control of risks (war, natural catastrophies and diseases) in the interest of humanity, not only for one percent or some lobby groups.

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  16. 16. donb0099 6:00 pm 05/24/2012

    Two comments.

    First we need to learn how to count. There are six questions here, not three. Everywhere there is an “and” another question starts.

    Second, many of these are not questions, but statements of a point of view posed as a question. Cute, but not very honest.

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  17. 17. geojellyroll 6:30 pm 05/24/2012

    Excellent comments above…best to keep science in the a’science’ column and politics is a ‘politics’ column.

    Dr. Strangelove…go to the penalty box for actually using your brain. Those and other specific issues actually impact the scientific infrastructure of society.

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  18. 18. GreenMind 9:31 pm 05/24/2012

    I would suggest the following question, regarding Global Warming/Climate Change:
    Considering that Dick Cheney said that if the probability of a terrorist attack on the US was 1%, then we should treat is as if it were 100%, do you think the probability that Global Warming will cause catastrophic changes in the climate of the United States is closer to 10% or closer to 90%, and how would your policies differ depending on your estimate of the probability.

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  19. 19. OTA-er 10:35 pm 05/24/2012

    I was pleased to see someone would like to see the Office of Technology Assessment(OTA) be restored. However, it was a Congressional agency, so it really would be up to the Congress to reinstate it.

    If your readers are not familiar with OTA, every report the agency published as well as other articles can be found at

    Link to this
  20. 20. dubina 11:36 pm 05/25/2012

    The European Union is sponsoring a competition to develop two or more flagship ICT initiatives beginning in 2013 and beyond.

    The EU competition is not unlike our Congressional sponsorship of private spacelift to the ISS and beyond, but it is more Earthbound and practical.

    It might be more related to government involvement in the failed Solyndra enterprise. My impression, however, is that the EU competition is better in form and substance than what we see now in the US.

    What about the European model vis-a-vis what we are doing now?

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  21. 21. 1:27 pm 05/30/2012

    Would you give priority to a government sponsored test program for Drs. James Powell and Gordon Danby’s 2nd generation superconducting magnetic levitation transport technology? and their plan (as described in The Fight for Maglev ebook on Amazon) to deploy, with private financing, this 300 mph transport system for passengers and freight trucks on the rights of way of the Interstate Highway System? It will make a huge difference in our trade deficit and create about 2.2 million jobs and will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. See:

    This same electric propulsion system can be used to launch payload to GEO and LEO and will make it affordable and feasible to build a space based solar power plant in space and make electricity available to anyplace on the planet for very low cost. This system will eliminate the variability of earth based solar power. See Chapter 10, The Fight for Maglev by Powell and Danby

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  22. 22. priond49 4:45 pm 06/4/2012

    More questions:

    Will you accept and publish – without interference through pressuring or editing- the facts, findings and recommendations by independent science panels as far as all pre-eminent issues of today are concerned: Health care, Global warming, Environmental protection, Education, etc. etc.?

    Provide statistics on the countries of origin/primary education of scientists who do research and teach on U.S. colleges and universities? Provide statistics on the countries of origin/primary education of tech specialists working in the U.S. in corporate jobs and whose research leads to patents? I believe that the number of foreign-born, foreign-educated scientists working in the U.S. is high and rising reflecting the decline of the number of U.S. born, U.S. educated scientists. That decline speaks volumes about the quality of U.S. primary education.

    Should science education and its outcome be locally or centrally (federal government)controlled?

    Should primary education be left to public or private institutions?

    Are you in favor of national quality of education criteria and standards to allow meaningful nationwide quality comparisons?

    Are you in favor of unbridled freedom of speech. If not why not?

    Will you protect whistleblowers in the future; as it seems right now most whistleblowers get fired at private and public institutions.

    Link to this

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