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Are we losing what made America great?
A Debate on Science and America’s Future

"Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for public debates in which the U.S. presidential and congressional candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy."

AAAS 2012 Elections Site

Post-election report to supporters

Science Debate 2008 makes over 800 million media impressions;
successfully changes the national debate;
work ahead "very important;" voice of scientists "critical"

November 19, 2008| Email to Supporters

Shawn Otto here.  Two weeks ago today, America woke up to a new era.  Before the election, I said we'd report to you on the successes and failures of this initiative that we have built together.  This has, for me, become a very personal mission, one that I have volunteered a good portion of my life to over the course of the last year.   Thank you for joining me and the SD08 team in that journey.

In the beginning...

Eleven months ago, six of us called for a presidential debate on science.  We put up a website, reached out to our contacts, wrote some opeds, and launched it in the blogosphere - and with your help, Science Debate 2008 arguably became the largest political initiative in the history of American science.  More than 39,000 individual scientists, engineers and concerned citizens joined together, along with nearly every major American science organization, the presidents of over 100 leading universities, 30 Nobel laureates, leaders of American industry, the editors of most American science publications,  leading congresspersons and many of the most brilliant minds working in science today.  All told, our initiative came to represent some 125 million Americans.

No news is not good news

By any measure, this many prominent individuals and organizations publicly calling for a presidential debate on science was news, and yet despite our pitching this story to hundreds of political reporters around the nation, not one political page in America reported on it in the early days.

We researched why this might be and discovered a structural problem in American news.  Editors don't allow political reporters to cover science, and science reporters have no access to the political pages.  At a time when the majority of challenges facing the nation revolve around science, from innovation and the economy, to climate change and energy, to healthcare, the environment, and science education, there is virtually no one covering science policy in America.  This is being compounded by major news outlets closing their science sections.

You gotta have faith

This lack of news coverage has a feedback loop with the candidates, causing them to class science as a niche topic.   This became apparent when, armed with our supporters, we secured broadcast partners in PBS's NOW and NOVA, and a venue partner in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, but the candidates declined to attend.  Instead, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton attended the "Compassion Forum" at Messiah College, where, among other things, they answered questions about science.  John McCain ignored both events.

While I was disappointed, I was not surprised.  The faith community has worked for decades to develop a political voice in the national dialogue.  Campaign advisors suggested to us that a science policy debate would require extensive preparation and be high risk for low return, as only a small segment of the population was interested.

We decided to test that assumption, so we partnered with Research!America to do a national poll, and found that in fact 85% of US adults said the presidential candidates should participate in a debate to discuss key policy problems facing the United States, such as health care, climate change, and energy, and how science can help tackle them.  These results held across party lines.   Contrary to the assumptions of the media and the candidates, the public is highly interested in science when it becomes science policy - how science will affect their lives.

The Top 14 Science Questions

So we decided to demystify the event.  Our supporters had submitted some 3,400 questions online.  I laid them out in a spreadsheet and categorized them by subject frequency, and we culled them into what we thought were the key questions you were interested in.  We then worked with our cosponsors, as well as SEforA and several other organizations, to turn them into The 14 Top Science Questions Facing America.

I then went back to the campaigns and essentially said "look, these poll results show Americans are very interested in seeing you debate, and here are the questions.  Virtually all of American science and academia is behind this.  You've at least got to answer these questions in writing, and we still think you should attend a nationally televised forum.  We live in a science-dominated world and these are many of the key questions facing the nation.  The American people deserve to know your positions on them."

A new milestone in presidential politics

To their credit, both Barack Obama and John McCain responded.  While they still declined a televised forum, instead attending yet another forum on faith, they did answer us in writing, representing the first time the endorsed candidates for President have laid out such detailed science policies as a part of the campaign - a milestone that is critical as we move further into the science-dominated 21st Century.

How they differed

There were several marked differences in their answers, which have been widely covered, but the largest was a philosophical difference, which was reflected in the answers to several of the questions.  Obama favored doubling federal investment in the kinds of research that eventually produce new economies that business can exploit, while McCain favored deregulation and tax credits to stimulate corporations to make increased R & D investments themselves.  Both positions had their detractors.  Some argued that government cannot afford to spend more in tough times, while others said quarterly-driven corporations can't afford to carry decade-long high-risk basic research projects on the books.

800 million media impressions and a top web site

Science Debate 2008-related stories subsequently appeared in almost every major paper in the nation, and in blogs, print media, radio, and television around the world.  All told, thanks to you, the Science Debate 2008 initiative eventually made over 800 million media impressions, and the web site rose into the top 1/4 of 1% of most visited sites on the internet.  Together with you, we are now widely credited with having elevated science in the national dialogue, which was our stated goal at the outset. 

Science Debate 2008 in play in the campaigns

The answers played out in the race in other ways as well.  I'll give you just a few brief examples.  Senator McCain’s answer to the embryonic stem cell question came into play a number of times - first when his wording appeared to pull back from his earlier support for embryonic stem cell research, a characterization both campaigns battled over in radio ads, and later when his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, flatly contradicted his answer in an interview with James Dobson and was subsequently described as “going rogue.”   Senator Obama's answer has been the basis of numerous stories since the election as stem cell advocates look forward to his lifting President Bush's restrictions as one of his first official acts as president.  In another answer and follow up interview, Senator McCain claimed to have been responsible for the development of wi-fi and Blackberry-like devices, which caused a minor tempest.  Senator Obama assembled a first class science advisory team to answer the questions, and they went on to further refine them into the Obama campaign's science policy.  They made news when 61 Nobel laureates (and eventually 15 more), led by Obama science advisory team leader Harold Varmus, signed a letter in support of his campaign; and the answers of both candidates to the questions of Science Debate 2008 served as the basis for a letter signed by 178 universities and organizations, urging the next president to appoint a science advisor by January 20 and elevate the post to cabinet-level.

No matter which candidate you supported, this debate of science issues is healthy for America.  Science Debate 2008 without question achieved its objective of reframing and elevating science in the American national dialogue, and I am proud to have been a part of it, along with you.

The road ahead

Looking forward, president-elect Obama has laid out ambitious science policy objectives that, if enacted, will go a long way toward reinvigorating America's science, research, engineering, energy, innovation, health, education and environmental standing, along with creating a renewed economic foundation for growth.  But to enact anything the President needs the support of Congress, and Congress in turn needs the support of the American people.  This is an historic opportunity to renew America's commitment to science at the federal level, but in a tight economy, science remains vulnerable as long as it is low in public and media awareness.  Now, more than ever, efforts that increase the visibility of the role of science policy are very important, and the voice of scientists is critical in that process.

Because of this, the Science Debate initiative is seeking funding to continue.  I have done this as a full time volunteer for the last year, but to sustain it we need paid staff and infrastructure, so now I am asking you to stand up with me for science.  This is your initiative, and together we need to continue our work with the American media to bring science policy more into the mainstream, we need to continue with cutting-edge conferences like Innovation 2008 that educate policymakers and the public, we need to continue to cross-promote as a netroots team, and we need to continue to advocate for public debates of science issues in political races.

Strategies for change

There is much work to be done to overcome decades of infrastructure that has been created to disseminate

antiscience misinformation.  Where we see ourselves fitting in is at this same nexus of policy, science, the media and the public.  So in the off year, one of our areas of focus will be to work to make the media more aware of the critical, positive role science policy and their coverage of it plays in the future of the United States, and to develop strategies for them to be more successful at it.  If science is engaged with policy, the public is highly interested.  Another is to work with state-level debate organizations, build bridges, and educate them, so when the time comes in 2010 for congressional races, we have laid some groundwork for science debates, or at least for science to be a much larger part of the debates.  Finally, we need to continue to use leveraged strategies to make the general public more aware of these issues as policies are debated and bills pass through congress.

The key to the future is in your hand

But let's be clear.  None of this happens without your support.  It is all in your hands.  Science Debate has proven to be an enormously successful approach.  You own a piece of this initiative and its success because you helped build it, promote it and fund it.  But you have to want it to continue.  If you're like me, you have a stake in a science-literate America, because you know how important it is to the ongoing success of the United States, to the health of the planet, and to your future and your children's future.  I'm largely in this for my son and the millions of kids like him, and because I think it's the right thing to do.  How about you?  Will you make an ongoing monthly contribution to help us continue?

Together, we can bring a new dawn for science in America.

Thank you, as always, for your support.

-Shawn Otto
and the rest of the team

The six founders of Science Debate 2008: Matthew Chapman, Austin Dacey, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Lawrence Krauss, Chris Mooney, and Shawn Lawrence Otto.  They were later joined by team members Darlene Cavalier and Erik Beeler.  Science Debate 2008's database and email communication infrastructure is made possible with pro-bono support from The DataBank, which we gratefully acknowledge