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Prominent Minnesotans push for presidential debate on science

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MinnPost illustration by Brian Barber

By Sharon Schmickle | Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2008

Imagine presidential candidates who stopped bickering over lipstick on pigs and which ticket has rights to the "leader of change" title.

Imagine that instead they dug deep into the weighty, complex matters in science and economics confronting the country, some with almost frightening urgency.

Never happen? You can't place all of the blame on the politicians. American voters as a rule don't demand that much substance of their candidates.

But there are significant exceptions. More than 38,000 Americans signed a petition this year calling for the candidates to participate in an initiative called Science Debate 2008.

One of six founders of the initiative and its current CEO is Shawn Otto, a screenwriter who divides his time between Los Angeles and his home in Marine on St. Croix in Minnesota. His best known movie is "House of Sand and Fog," but he also has written a scientific film about astronomer Edwin Hubble, who significantly enhanced understanding of the Big Bang.

"I've been very concerned over the erosion of standards of reality-based thinking over the last eight years under this administration," Otto said. "A lot of scientists have shared the concern that facts are being discarded in favor of political spin. . . . It's threatening our standing in the world economy, and we need to grapple with some of these major issues or we are going to slip behind."

The initiative is non-partisan, and those who have signed onto it include prominent Republicans, such as former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, as well as Democrats.

Minnesota institutions that joined the initiative include The Science Museum of Minnesota, the University of Minnesota, The Will Steger Foundation and Macalester College.

Other individuals from Minnesota include Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Democratic Reps. Betty McCollum and Tim Walz, and former state Sen. Steve Kelley, who now directs the Center for Science, Technology and Policy at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Minneapolis native Peter Agre, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003, was one of 31 Nobel laureates who joined.

The presidential candidates have not agreed to stand for a science debate, but Otto said their campaigns are engaged in discussions about a staging a forum where they would appear sequentially to speak on science issues.

The campaigns also have been invited to participate in a related conference, "Innovation 2008: Renewing America Through Smarter Science & Technology Policy" on Oct. 20 and 21 at the University of Minnesota. Science Debate 2008 is a host along with the Bell Museum of Natural History and the Humphrey Institute's Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy. The conference is open to the public for fees of up to $175.

Meanwhile, the campaigns have responded to a 14-point list of pressing issues in science. The 14 points were developed from over 3,400 questions submitted by signers of the Science Debate 2008 initiative. Also involved in selecting and shaping the points were experts from many of the nation's leading scientific organizations.

Now the responsibility falls to voters. If you've been grousing about a lack of substance in the campaigns, here's your chance. A few of the responses are summarized below. For the full list, go here.

1. Innovation. Science and technology have been responsible for half of the growth of the American economy since WWII. But several recent reports question Americas' continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will you support to ensure that America remains the world leader in innovation?

Republican Sen. John McCain noted that he is former chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which plays a major role in the development of technology policy.

"My policies will provide broad pools of capital, low taxes and incentives for research in America, a commitment to a skilled and educated workforce, and a dedication to opening markets around the globe. I am committed to streamlining burdensome regulations and effectively protecting American intellectual property in the United States and around the globe."

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama noted that the United States ranks 17th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering, down from third place 30 years ago.

"My administration will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics, and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade. We will increase research grants for early-career researchers to keep young scientists entering these fields. We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies. And we will invest in the breakthrough research we need to meet our energy challenges and to transform our defense programs."

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 the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change—a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research? Are there other policies you would support?

McCain: "To dramatically reduce carbon emissions, I will institute a new cap-and-trade system that over time will change the dynamic of our energy economy. By the year 2012, we will seek a return to 2005 levels of emissions, by 2020, a return to 1990 levels, and so on until we have achieved at least a reduction of 60 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050."

Obama: "I will implement a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. I will start reducing emissions immediately by establishing strong annual reduction targets with an intermediate goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. . . . I will require all pollution credits to be auctioned."

(For more information on this point see an earlier MinnPost report.)

3. 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 demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

McCain: Stressed nuclear energy, pledging to put the country on track to build 45 new reactors by 2030. Called for development of alternative energy sources — wind, solar, geothermal, tide and hydroelectric — but said government should be an ally, not an arbiter. Said current tax credits for renewable power are temporary and often the result of "who had the best lobbyist instead of who had the best ideas." But also said the objective of renewable energy is "right and urgent." Pledged to let "the market decide which ideas can move us toward clean and renewable energy."

Obama: Proposed programs that, taken together, would increase federal investment in clean energy research, development and deployment by $150 billion over 10 years, including nuclear energy. Set energy innovation goals, including increasing new building efficiency by 50 percent and existing building efficiency by 25 percent over next decade. Would increase fuel economy standards for vehicles 4 percent per year and provide loan guarantees for domestic auto plants and parts manufacturers to help build new fuel-efficient cars domestically.

4. Education. A comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, while average U.S. math scores ranked 24th. What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century?

McCain: Stressed that education also must include re-training displaced workers with programs such as community college grants for instruction in digital and wireless technologies. Would bring private corporations more directly into the process of identifying and maximizing potential of students who excel in math and science. Would direct major portion of existing federal funding toward incentive bonuses paid directly to high performing teachers to locate in settings where they could teach subjects like math and science and also demonstrate student improvement.

Obama: Recently introduced the "Enhancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education Act of 2008" that would establish a STEM Education Committee within the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Sponsored an amendment, which became law, to the America Competes Act that established a competitive state grant program to support summer learning opportunities in math and problem solving. Pledged to work with states and local communities to recruit math and science graduates to teaching. Would set up a "zero to five" program to ensure that children enter school ready to learn. Also pledged a tax credit to give access to higher education that provides science fluency.

5. National Security. Science and technology are at the core of national security like never before. What is your view of how science and technology can best be used to ensure national security and where should we put our focus?

McCain: "As President, I will strengthen the military, shore up our alliances, and ensure that the nation is capable of protecting the homeland, deterring potential military challenges, responding to any crisis that endangers American security, and prevailing in any conflict we are forced to fight."

He said we benefit today from technology that was invented for military use a quarter of a century ago, including the Internet, Teflon and GPS. To ensure that America retains its edge in the most strategic areas, he pledged to "continue to encourage this with advanced R&D research funding."

Obama: "My administration will put basic defense research on a path to double and will assure strong funding for investments in DoD's applied research programs. We will enhance the connections between defense researchers and their war-fighting counterparts. And, we will strengthen defense research management so that our most innovative minds are working on our most pressing defense problems."

He said it is essential to create a coherent new defense technology strategy to meet the kinds of threats we may face—asymmetric conflicts, urban operations, peacekeeping missions, and cyber, bio and proliferation threats, as well as new kinds of symmetric threats.
Other issues

The candidates weighed in on a range of other issues, from bio-terrorism to genetic research to ocean health.

Their positions on stem cells are well known. Unlike President Bush, McCain said he supports federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. But McCain also said he opposes the creation of human embryos for research purposes (Today, scientists use embryos that fertility clinics planned to discard because they no longer were needed by parents who created the embryos.).

Obama called for expanding stem cell research. Restrictions Bush placed on the funding "have handcuffed our scientists and hindered our ability to compete with other nations," he said. "As president, I will lift the current administration's ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001 through executive order, and I will ensure that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight."

On space exploration, McCain seemed more gung-ho, saying it would be a top priority and the United States must remain a leader. Obama called for getting NASA more involved in problems on Earth, such as climate change, as well as inspiring the world with human and robotic space exploration.

Many Americans don't think of some priorities, such as health care and national security, as science issues. For that reason alone, the 14 points and the candidates' responses are thoughtful, mind-expanding and well worth a few minutes of review before stepping into a voting booth.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs or the University of Minnesota. The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota or the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.