Why aren't the presidential candidates being asked about science?

Science Friday
GOP debates Trump and Rubio

The election season has now been going on for more than a year, and while the candidates make lots of speeches about taxes, job creation or international trade, there’s one topic you don't hear about much on the campaign trail: science.

It certainly didn't play a role in the primaries, but might there be more of a science focus in the general election? Maybe even some science questions during the three scheduled debates?

Shawn Otto, a science writer, chair of ScienceDebate.org and the author of a new book called "The War on Science," sure hopes so. In 2008, Otto says, candidates were asked nearly 3,000 questions during the campaign. Only six of those questions were about climate change.

Flash forward eight years to Democratic and Republican debates that were each held within a week of 195 countries signing the Paris climate accords: Not a single journalist in either debate asked the candidates about climate change.

Too many of the people involved in political campaigns wrongly assume that the public is not interested in questions about science, Otto says.

“We have encountered this problem over and over again,” he says. “I think it's because most of the political class and most of the political journalists had their last exposure to science in high school and they didn't like it very much. They went into the humanities, they went into journalism or they went into law, and they haven't had to deal with it since, and they're very happy in that world. But that's not the world we're living in anymore.”

For example, when ScienceDebate.org and Research America commissioned a national poll to hear voters’ views on the subject, 87 percent of voters said that “candidates for president ought to be well-versed in science and ought to be able to talk about these issues in a public forum,” Otto points out.

Otto has created 20 questions he believes candidates should answer and he has posted them at ScienceDebate.org/20 questions. These questions are central to many of the big policy challenges any new president will face in office, he insists.

Reporters and the public must ask questions like, “How are you going to continue to power the American economy forward using science and innovation, which is responsible for over half of the economic growth of the United States since World War II? How are we going to balance privacy and security on the Internet? What are we going to do about the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs that are threatening to end some of medicine as we know it?”

These issues affect voters’ lives at least as much as economic policy or foreign policy or the faith and values issues that we often hear candidates sharing with journalists on the campaign trail, Otto contends. Beyond getting a candidates to answer on the content, their answers reveal something about their respect for the role of evidence in their decision-making.

“In America, evidence is the foundation of justice,” Otto insists. “It is evidence that the Founders relied on when they crafted the Declaration of Independence, to argue that all of us are created equal.”

Otto’s organization has reached out to all four major presidential campaigns and received a “somewhat receptive response” from most of them, he says. In addition, ScienceDebate.org and a broad coalition of the American science enterprise — including the National Academies of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Chemical Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers — are pushing journalists to start asking these questions when they encounter candidates on the campaign trail.

“Over the next 40 years, we're going to create as much new knowledge as we have in all of recorded human history,” Otto continues. “So, we've simply got to find a more robust way of incorporating the advances from science into our policy-making dialogue, so we can continue to govern ourselves.”

Policy-making is, in fact, at the core of what Otto aims to achieve: Public policy ought to be based on evidence, when evidence is available.

“If there is evidence, somebody’s well-held opinion shouldn't be trumping it,” Otto says, “because it's the evidence from nature that determines what's really going on and what's most fair to the majority of people.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow.

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