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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

What Do Obama and Romney Know about Science? And Why It Matters

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Image: League of Women Voters

Scientific American is partnering with the folks at ScienceDebate.org and more than a dozen leading science and engineering organizations to try to inject more discussion about critical science issues into the U.S. presidential election campaign this year. As part of that effort, we will be asking the two main presidential candidates—Barack Obama and Mitt Romney—to respond to 14 questions (listed below) on some of the biggest scientific and technological challenges facing the U.S. in the near future. We will grade the candidates' answers in the November magazine issue of Scientific American—as well as give you the opportunity to provide your own assessments (or take issue with ours) on the web.

Why is Scientific American taking this step? If you look beyond the made-up controversies that seem to dominate political discussion these days to the real issues—the real challenges, threats and opportunities that the U.S. faces today, tomorrow and for the rest of the century—you'll find that most of them require a better grasp of some key scientific question or research field. Sometimes the link is obvious—as with global climate change. Other times it becomes clear only upon reflection—as with creating new avenues of economic innovation (just what do you think has fueled a substantial amount of the growth in the US economy for the past sixty years?)

The point is, as informed citizens, we need to know how the presidential candidates expect to address the basic scientific issues that are so vital to our country's and our planet's future—and that their policies will be based on sound science. The best showcase for such a discussion would be a live debate between the candidates dedicated entirely to scientific issues.

As a starting point, more than a dozen scientific and engineering organizations—ranging from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to the Union of Concerned Scientists—have come up with what they see as the top science questions facing the US in 2012. The questions are now being sent to the presidential campaigns. In addition, Scientific American will contact key leaders in Congress who play major roles in determining how scientific knowledge is translated into policy with a subset of these questions that are most applicable to the legislative branch of government for their response.

So take a look at the following questions (also available at ScienceDebate.org/questions.html) and let us know via your comments what you think of both the questions and whether you would like to see the presidential candidates' take part in a debate devoted to the scientific issues that underlie key economic, foreign policy and education issues.

1. Innovation and the Economy. Science and technology have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII, when the federal government first prioritized peacetime science mobilization. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?

2. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?

3. Research and the Future. Federally funded research has helped to produce America’s major postwar economies and to ensure our national security, but today the UK, Singapore, China, and Korea are making competitive investments in research. Given that the next Congress will face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in research in your upcoming budgets?

4. Pandemics and Biosecurity. Recent experiments show how Avian flu may become transmissible among mammals. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from emerging diseases, global pandemics and/or deliberate biological attacks?

5. Education. Increasingly, the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st. In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?

6. Energy. Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

7. Food. Thanks to science and technology, the United States has the world's most productive and diverse agricultural sector, yet many Americans are increasingly concerned about the health and safety of our food. The use of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, as well as animal diseases and even terrorism pose risks. What steps would you take to ensure the health, safety and productivity of America's food supply?

8. Fresh Water. Less than one percent of the world's water is liquid fresh water, and scientific studies suggest that a majority of U.S. and global fresh water is now at risk because of increasing consumption, evaporation and pollution. What steps, if any, should the federal government take to secure clean, abundant fresh water for all Americans?

9. The Internet. The Internet plays a central role in both our economy and our society. What role, if any, should the federal government play in managing the Internet to ensure its robust social, scientific, and economic role?

10. Ocean Health. Scientists estimate that 75 percent of the world's fisheries are in serious decline, habitats like coral reefs are threatened, and large areas of ocean and coastlines are polluted. What role should the federal government play domestically and through foreign policy to protect the environmental health and economic vitality of the oceans?

11. Science in Public Policy. We live in an era when science and technology affect every aspect of life and society, and so must be included in well-informed public policy decisions. How will you ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are fully informed by the best available scientific and technical information, and that the public is able to evaluate the basis of these policy decisions?

12. Space. The United States is currently in a major discussion over our national goals in space. What should America's space exploration and utilization goals be in the 21st century and what steps should the government take to help achieve them?

13. Critical Natural Resources. Supply shortages of natural resources affect economic growth, quality of life, and national security; for example, China currently produces 97% of rare earth elements needed for advanced electronics. What steps should the federal government take to ensure the quality and availability of critical natural resources?

14. Vaccination and Public Health. Vaccination campaigns against preventable diseases such as measles, polio and whooping cough depend on widespread participation to be effective, but in some communities vaccination rates have fallen off sharply. What actions would you support to enforce vaccinations in the interest of public health, and in what circumstances should exemptions be allowed?

Update (Sept. 5, 2012): Click to see the answers to the top 14 science questions from Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.

Election 2012 button used under Creative Commons license BY 2.0.

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

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