Scientists have 20 burning questions for presidential candidates
Leading research organizations are trying to shift the political conversation to engineering, technology, and the environment.
Shawn Rocco/The News & Observer/AP/File
Will presidential candidates finally brave a scientific debate?
A coalition of leading scientific organizations, representing more than 10 million scientists and engineers, is calling on the US presidential candidates to address the topics that don't typically get much traction in policy debates, from cybersecurity to innovation to the environment.
"Taken collectively, these twenty issues have at least as profound an impact on voters' lives as those more frequently covered by journalists, including candidates' views on economic policy, foreign policy, and faith and values," said Shawn Otto, the organizer of the effort, in a statement.
The group, called ScienceDebate, which includes the National Academy of Sciences, Duke University, and the Society of Women Engineers, will directly post each campaign's reply to the questions on its site. And it's pressing journalists, citizens, and debate moderators to keep the conversation going by asking candidates to elaborate on science and research related topics in the final three months of the presidential campaign.
Founded in 2008, ScienceDebate has refined its list of questions for this year's set of presidential contenders. Three questions tackle climate change, and others cover ocean health, nuclear energy, access to clean water, and space exploration. For the first time, opioid addiction and mental health appear on the list.
ScienceDebate was founded out of a desire to push candidates to address the topic of climate change in particular. This election's presidential candidates have already embraced a climate change discussion much more enthusiastically than in the two previous campaigns, as The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this month.
Hillary Clinton has made renewable energy a central part of her platform, setting more ambitious goals to transition the nation's electricity to renewable sources than President Obama, after defeating primary contender Senator Bernie Sanders who announced "this election is about climate change."
Donald Trump has also directly addressed the issue, though he has taken the opposite tack, repeatedly expressing skepticism about human-induced climate change and touting plans to deregulate the fossil fuel industry.
Despite the issue's relatively higher profile, though, climate change is still far overshadowed by other pressing issues of the day. The phrase "climate change" was only mentioned a few times at the Republican convention, and Hillary Clinton remained vague on her commitment to taking action on the topic at the Democratic convention, saying, "We can save the planet."
“It’s a tough issue for both sides to talk about, but particularly for the left side to talk about,” David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, told The Christian Science Monitor in July. “When you get down to the specific policies, especially policies like a carbon tax [that] impose costs on voters, then it becomes an uncomfortable topic."
The press hasn't being forcing the issue into the limelight, as Media Matters reported in March. Out of 1,477 questions asked during the presidential primary debates, only 22, or 1.5 percent, were about climate change.
“We are encouraging journalists to ask these questions at every opportunity,” Mr. Otto told Science Magazine. “We’re in a new era where science is impacting people more than ever, and candidates will respond to what is on the minds of the public.”
1. Innovation: Science and engineering have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII. But some reports question America’s continued leadership in these areas. What policies will best ensure that America remains at the forefront of innovation?
2. Research: Many scientific advances require long-term investment to fund research over a period of longer than the two, four, or six year terms that govern political cycles. In the current climate of budgetary constraints, what are your science and engineering research priorities and how will you balance short-term versus long-term funding?
3. Climate Change: The Earth’s climate is changing and political discussion has become divided over both the science and the best response. What are your views on climate change, and how would your administration act on those views?
4. Biodiversity: Biological diversity provides food, fiber, medicines, clean water and many other products and services on which we depend every day. Scientists are finding that the variety and variability of life is diminishing at an alarming rate as a result of human activity. What steps will you take to protect biological diversity?
5. The Internet: The Internet has become a foundation of economic, social, law enforcement, and military activity. What steps will you take to protect vulnerable infrastructure and institutions from cyber attack, and to provide for national security while protecting personal privacy on electronic devices and the internet?
6. Mental Health: Mental illness is among the most painful and stigmatized diseases, and the National Institute of Mental Health estimates it costs America more than $300 billion per year. What will you do to reduce the human and economic costs of mental illness?
7. Energy: Strategic management of the US energy portfolio can have powerful economic, environmental, and foreign policy impacts. How do you see the energy landscape evolving over the next 4 to 8 years, and, as President, what will your energy strategy be?
8. Education: American students have fallen in many international rankings of science and math performance, and the public in general is being faced with an expanding array of major policy challenges that are heavily influenced by complex science. How would your administration work to ensure all students including women and minorities are prepared to address 21st century challenges and, further, that the public has an adequate level of STEM literacy in an age dominated by complex science and technology?
9. Public Health: Public health efforts like smoking cessation, drunk driving laws, vaccination, and water fluoridation have improved health and productivity and save millions of lives. How would you improve federal research and our public health system to better protect Americans from emerging diseases and other public health threats, such as antibiotic resistant superbugs?
10. Water: The long-term security of fresh water supplies is threatened by a dizzying array of aging infrastructure, aquifer depletion, pollution, and climate variability. Some American communities have lost access to water, affecting their viability and destroying home values. If you are elected, what steps will you take to ensure access to clean water for all Americans?
11. Nuclear Power: Nuclear power can meet electricity demand without producing greenhouse gases, but it raises national security and environmental concerns. What is your plan for the use, expansion, or phasing out of nuclear power, and what steps will you take to monitor, manage and secure nuclear materials over their life cycle?
12. Food: Agriculture involves a complex balance of land and energy use, worker health and safety, water use and quality, and access to healthy and affordable food, all of which have inputs of objective knowledge from science. How would you manage the US agricultural enterprise to our highest benefit in the most sustainable way?
13. Global Challenges: We now live in a global economy with a large and growing human population. These factors create economic, public health, and environmental challenges that do not respect national borders. How would your administration balance national interests with global cooperation when tackling threats made clear by science, such as pandemic diseases and climate change, that cross national borders?
14. Regulations: Science is essential to many of the laws and policies that keep Americans safe and secure. How would science inform your administration's decisions to add, modify, or remove federal regulations, and how would you encourage a thriving business sector while protecting Americans vulnerable to public health and environmental threats?
15. Vaccination: Public health officials warn that we need to take more steps to prevent international epidemics from viruses such as Ebola and Zika. Meanwhile, measles is resurgent due to decreasing vaccination rates. How will your administration support vaccine science?
16. Space: There is a political debate over America’s national approach to space exploration and use. What should America's national goals be for space exploration and earth observation from space, and what steps would your administration take to achieve them?
17. Opioids: There is a growing opioid problem in the United States, with tragic costs to lives, families and society. How would your administration enlist researchers, medical doctors and pharmaceutical companies in addressing this issue?
18. Ocean Health: There is growing concern over the decline of fisheries and the overall health of the ocean: scientists estimate that 90% of stocks are fished at or beyond sustainable limits, habitats like coral reefs are threatened by ocean acidification, and large areas of ocean and coastlines are polluted. What efforts would your administration make to improve the health of our ocean and coastlines and increase the long-term sustainability of ocean fisheries?
19. Immigration: There is much current political discussion about immigration policy and border controls. Would you support any changes in immigration policy regarding scientists and engineers who receive their graduate degree at an American university? Conversely, what is your opinion of recent controversy over employment and the H1-B Visa program?
20. Scientific Integrity: Evidence from science is the surest basis for fair and just public policy, but that is predicated on the integrity of that evidence and of the scientific process used to produce it, which must be both transparent and free from political bias and pressure. How will you foster a culture of scientific transparency and accountability in government, while protecting scientists and federal agencies from political interference in their work?