Earth & Conservation

How About a Debate About Science?

The sciences barely rated a mention in the first debate. Is it time they had a forum all their own? One group thinks so.

Photo: Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton appear at their first debate at Hofstra University. Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst Over the course of the 2016 election season, there were 22 primaries and town halls between the Republicans and Democrats. So far in the general, two debates have been held, one between the presidential candidates and another between the prospective vice presidents, and two more are scheduled, one of which will take place at Washington University in St. Louis this evening.

The scope of the responsibilities of presidency demands that potential office-holders bear a broad knowledge of and policy solutions for a range of issues, dealing with everything from the economy to national security and more.

Moderators no doubt will cover these topics, but what often gets lost over the course of a debate are questions relating to the sciences, and a nonprofit group, ScienceDebate.org, aims to change that. Supporters of the efforts of ScienceDebate.org include dozens of Nobel laureates, hundreds of organizations and thousands of ordinary voters.

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According to a 2015 poll commissioned by the group, 87 percent of Americans surveyed want their elected leaders to have a basic understanding of the science informing policy decisions, and there was broad support across the political spectrum for a debate about health care, climate change, energy, STEM education and other issues specific to the sciences.

It's not unusual for the focus of a candidate forum to be on national security or economic policy. In 2012, for example, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney participated in three debates, one of which focused on domestic policy and another on foreign affairs. Topics related to the sciences can be just as broad and are global in scope.

The group has made an effort to get the aspiring office-holders on the record with their responses for the past couple of presidential election cycles, and this year is no different, with the candidates from the two major parties as well as third parties invited to a forum to discuss their views.

Knowing that getting the candidates to agree to such an event would be a long shot given the demands of the campaign trail, the organization also published a list of the top 20 science and engineering questions, provided and voted on by members of the public. The candidates' responses, touching on issues ranging from mental health to nuclear power to food security and water scarcity, highlight the different policy approaches each prospective president would pursue.

What's missing from this online Q&A though is the audience, both at the live event and watching at home. While anyone can access the candidates' responses online, north of 80 million Americans tuned in the first debate between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Could a debate about the sciences draw a similar crowd? That's just one more question we won't get the answer to this election cycle.

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