Commentary: A science-literate president, please

  • 15 December 2007
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  • Lawrence Krauss

 

WE IN the United States are burdened with an election campaign that lasts for almost two years and saturates the airwaves. To give the appearance of substantive discussion, each party has imposed a series of televised debates where, for a whole 90 seconds, each candidate gets to provide profound, in-depth analysis of the leading issues of the day.

I wrote some months ago in New Scientist about my dismay resulting from one Republican debate, in which the candidates were asked if they believed in the theory of evolution. Three of them bluntly said no. In the next debate one candidate noted that he was running for president of the United States, not for a local school board official, and so the issue was unimportant. Most Americans agreed with him, according to polls taken shortly after the debate.

But I still believe that widespread disinterest in the scientific literacy of our next president does not mean the issue is irrelevant. It may rather reflect the fact that most Americans are themselves scientifically illiterate. A 2001 National Science Foundation survey of scientific literacy among US adults, for example, found that 50 per cent could not say for sure that the Earth orbits the sun and takes a year to do it.

Earlier this month, I joined a group of scientists, including several Nobel laureates and heads of major scientific societies, in issuing a public call for a presidential debate devoted to science and technology. The debate would cover three broad categories: the environment; health and medicine; and science and technology policy.

Regardless of who is elected in 2008, and whether or not the public is currently focused on these concerns, the US president will make decisions over the following four years on issues ranging from stem cells to nuclear proliferation. In fact, almost all of the major challenges the world faces in this new century - the environment, national security, economic competitiveness, energy strategies - have their roots in science and technology. The decisions the president makes in these areas will have a global impact. In some cases, they may be irreversible.

The decisions the president makes in scientific areas will have a global impact

It will be a big challenge to come up with effective policies to address these issues. Creating the political will to carry them out may be an even bigger one. Such leadership requires confidence based on conviction. Most major successful initiatives in the US can be traced back to a president who has acted as an "educator-in-chief" as well as commander-in-chief. Can someone who is not comfortable thinking about scientific issues have the necessary conviction to lead instead of follow when it comes to policies based on science?

The strange thing is that in spite of apparent disinterest on the surface, deep down the American people do seem to understand that science and technology are essential to solving many of the problems we face. When reports surfaced that avian flu might arise as a human threat, everyone from the president down called for studies to determine how quickly the virus might mutate and jump from birds to people. In spite of the public controversy regarding evolution, there were no calls to ignore the threat because the virus might be divinely "designed".

We owe it to the next generation to take ownership of these issues now. To achieve this, we need to build on this vague awareness of science's importance and create a more scientifically literate electorate and leadership. A presidential debate on these subjects would be a good start.

Focus on America - Delve into the science and technology questions facing the USA in our special report.

Lawrence Krauss is a physicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio
From issue 2634 of New Scientist magazine, 15 December 2007, page 52