Politics of Science Policy: A Critical and Embarrassing Lacuna

For those who may not be aware, ScienceDebate dot org, founded by Shawn Otto and Matthew Chapman, is a US not-for-profit agency that engages elected officials, including presidential candidates, to talk about science and technology policy. Otto and Chapman are both screenwriters and authors, and Chapman has the added street-cred of being a great-great grandson of Charles Darwin (yes, that Darwin!). One of the major achievements of ScienceDebate in recent times has been to get President Obama and the Presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, to present their answers to 14 top science policy-related questions, chosen from thousands of questions submitted by scientists, engineers and concerned citizens. The variety of topics covered in these questions ranged from innovation, research and economy, education, climate change, energy, biosecurity, public health, to conservation of natural resources, thereby underscoring the importance of science in all walks of life and the critical need to incorporate it in national policy-making. I invite you all, dear readers, to take a look at the answers by Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. I, personally, thought that Mr. Obama had a better understanding of the situation and what needs to be done, whereas Mr. Romney was perhaps more interested in treating the answers as his stump speeches, big on rhetoric, short on solid policy, with a soupçon of climate change denial. But don’t take my word for it; as always, YMMV.

Unfortunately, the first presidential debate (October 3) and the vice presidential debate (October 11) ignored science and science-policy questions almost entirely, and the second presidential debate yesterday (October 16) paid lip-service to science policy in terms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, and some rudimentary discussions of energy and innovation.

I hope science policy would get a little more screen time during the third debate (October 22); it is difficult to imagine why a presidential campaign would not want to address this important issue, particularly during a time when this country appears to be suffering from a slump in American students’ performance in the STEM topics and the nation has been accused of a growing wave of anti-intellectualism and an unhealthy disregard for scholarship (For a more in-depth analysis, see Paul Rosenberg’s opinion essay here).

It is perhaps a testament to the alleged anti-intellectualism that, when ScienceDebate, along with Scientific American, asked 33 leaders of science-oriented congressional committees to respond to the top American science questions (a subset of 8 from the above-mentioned 14), this is what happened:

Six of them declined outright, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, who were asked to participate because of their overall responsibility for the flow of legislation through congress. Several more ignored numerous requests from ScienceDebate and Scientific American. Nine of the thirty-three responded.

“Americans should be concerned that only nine of the thirty-three key leaders on science-related congressional committees feel the need to let the public know their views on science,” said Shawn Otto, CEO of ScienceDebate.org. “As to the nine who did respond—members of both parties—their leadership should be applauded.”

The nine responders were comprised of seven Democrats and two Republicans, but that is beside the point. Science policy is supposed to be evidence-based, rooted in rational thinking, and therefore, not a matter of partisan haggling. This assumes fresh, and more critical, significance in the light of the events of recent times, in which more than one of the elected Republican members of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology have been caught on tape uttering embarrassingly meaningless and scientifically inaccurate tripe (video below).

As the Scientific American observed astutely:

… even the most science-savvy chief executive needs scientifically literate partners in Congress to implement sound initiatives. After all, the nation’s laws ultimately get debated and passed on the floors of the House of Representatives and Senate. Because most of Congress’s legislative work occurs within committees, we thought it made sense to find out how the top-ranking members of those committees approach issues that have some sort of foundation in science.

It’s high time Americans who are professionally invested in the STEM disciplines, as well as sundry citizens, started asking their elected representatives to step up to the plate and come together to formulate an effective science policy capable of circumventing the top challenges of tomorrow, as embodied in the questions posed to the 2012 Presidential candidates. The long-term future of this nation is at stake.


Further reading:

  1. Shawn Otto, Antiscience Beliefs Jeopardize U.S. Democracy. Scientific American, November, 2012.
  2. The Science Agenda, U.S. Should Adopt Higher Standards for Science Education. Scientific American, August, 2012.
  3. The Science Agenda, Future Jobs Depend on a Science-Based Economy. Scientific American, November, 2012.

1 Comment

  1. Kausik Datta

    October 18, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    A friend of mine gave me some pointers on the analogous situation in the UK. Following are the links to some discussions on Science Policy in UK politics at a recent Lib Dem Conference – speeches by MP Julian Huppert, activist Jenny Woods and my friend, scientist and blogger/author, Prateek Buch.

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