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September 2012 Briefing Memo



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SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN is partnering with Science Debate (www.sciencedebate.org) and more than a dozen leading science and engineering organizations to inject more discussion about critical science issues into the U.S. presidential election campaign this year. We are asking President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to respond to 14 questions on some of the biggest scientific and technological challenges facing the U.S. in the near future. We intend to grade the candidates’ answers in the November issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN.

• ENVIRONMENT
The U.S. needs to improve the health of its ocean waters. The Ocean Health Index rates the health of ocean waters bordering 171 coastal countries and territories. The U.S., which ranks at No. 27, is meeting most of its goals but lags in some, such as sustainably harvesting seafood. Policy makers could use the Ocean Health Index to guide decision making—for example, to decide whether offshore wind energy should be expanded in the U.S. See: Advances: How Healthy Is Your Ocean?

The Earth may warm by about 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 if our habits remain the same. If we continue to burn fossil fuels at our present rate, the greenhouse gases released, such as carbon dioxide, will transform the planet: sea levels may rise by almost 400 feet and polar regions will become much warmer. These changes could spark mass migrations that might challenge political and economic stability. See: Ecology: The Great Climate Experiment

• HEALTH CARE
Janitors could be the crucial piece of the puzzle for fighting infection in hospitals. Keyboards, bed rails and privacy curtains could be harboring highly infectious and dangerous bacteria if not cleaned correctly. The importance of hospital cleanliness is highlighted by the U.S. government’s Hospital Compare Web site, which rates institution’s health care–associated infections. This stresses the importance of hiring staff that know how to clean various surfaces, which could save the lives of patients. See: The Science of Health: Clean Sweep

Only half of the medications that doctors prescribe to patients 18 and younger have been tested and proved safe or effective for their age group, which puts these patients at risk for overdose, unknown side effects and even long-term health problems. Drug companies find that such studies would be expensive and complex; and since children make up a small fraction of the world’s pharma market, creating and testing medicine specifically tailored for their age range is usually not the best business practice. A new law the U.S. Congress passed in July gives the Food and Drug Administration new authority to compel drug companies to test their products for children. This law has left some gaps, but it is a good start. See: Science Agenda: Safer Drugs for Kids

• EDUCATION
Teachers need a trusted source that guides them on how to best teach their students. For instance, it has been shown that students scored 50 percent higher on exams when they repeatedly quiz themselves rather than just rereading material. Yet most teachers still encourage students to highlight text and reread it. With so much noise about how to teach, it is difficult for educators to know which methods have been tested and proved worthwhile and which are based on merely common misconceptions about teaching. A neutral national review board that gathers evidence and sets teaching standards would be the easiest and quickest means for broad improvements in teaching. See: Forum: Brain Science in the Classroom

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