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See Inside February 2008

Presidential Science

Aspirants to the White House should publicly debate their views on science policy

Consider this partial list of issues that the next president of the U.S. will need to address: reducing greenhouse gas emissions; ensuring freshwater supplies; encouraging reliance on renewable energy sources; preparing for pandemics; developing stem cell technologies; improving science education; stimulating technological innovation.

How many of the current candidates for the presidency have stated clear positions on those subjects? What reasons would they give for their stances, and how well could they defend them? The answers could be broadly illuminating. The policies of the U.S. on such matters will be earthshakingly important in the years ahead, yet the candidates’ intentions toward them have come in for little sustained attention thus far.

One of the more notorious moments of the campaign season occurred last May during a debate among the Republican candidates, when three of them went on the record as not believing in the theory of evolution. Voters are undoubtedly better off knowing that to be true. It is at least as important, however, to know how all the candidates would set science priorities and direct technology to positive ends.

In December a grassroots bipartisan movement of concerned citizens operating as Science Debate 2008 issued a call for a debate that would focus exclusively on issues relating to the environment, health and medicine, and science and technology policy. Twelve Nobel laureates and other scientists are among the signatories to the petition, but so, too, are sitting congressional representatives, former presidential science advisers, business leaders and others (the list is still growing as this goes to press). Support has come swiftly from both Republicans and Democrats, as it should. I signed the petition on behalf of Scientific American and serve on the organization’s steering committee. Readers can learn more about the effort online at www.sciencedebate2008.com.

A similar proposal for a “town hall” on science circulated during the 2004 presidential election, but it faltered. Here’s hoping that this time the idea finds more traction with the campaigns. Our nation cannot afford to elect a president who is ill informed or dismissive about the role of science in making the world’s future secure and bright.

Outside the U.S., at least one president positively glories in what science can do for his country. In her article “Building a Future on Science”, staff editor Christine Soares describes the visionary plan that originated with neuroscientist Miguel A. L. Nicolelis of Duke University to promote economic development in a poor region of Brazil by establishing a new “science city” there. Centering on a well-financed research institution, such a cluster would cultivate the regional economy and raise the quality of local science education dramatically. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, president of Brazil, has become an enthusiastic supporter of this concept. In the Forum essay, Lula da Silva, Nicolelis and Fernando Haddad, Brazil’s minister of education, announce a new initiative based on this concept that will extend science education and teacher training throughout the nation. We salute their enterprise and wish them well with this bold experiment.

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