Commentary: Ideas that will govern America

  • 16 February 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Lawrence Krauss

WHEN I wrote in a previous "World lines" commentary (15 December 2007, p 52) that I was joining a group of individuals to call for a presidential debate on US science and technology policy, I didn't have much hope that such an event might actually take place. Yet in the few weeks since, we have received an overwhelming response, not only from the scientific community but also from the business community, journalists and interested lay people.

More than 13,000 people have already signed up at www.sciencedebate2008.com to support the call. Institutions like the National Academy of Sciences and the Carnegie Institution and editors at leading journals like Nature are also openly endorsing it. Journalists from Business Week to the National Review have been calling to hear the latest progress. Our issues are now being raised by some of the candidates.

I am now happy to report that we have formally invited Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, John McCain and Barack Obama to debate on 18 April at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Whether they will accept is not yet certain, but the debate appears more realistic every day.

That's why it is important to emphasise what the debate is about - and what it's not about. It is most definitely not intended to be a science quiz. Its purpose is to air key public policy issues relating to science and technology. Voters need to know the candidates' policies on such issues, and even more importantly to know what kind of thought process the candidates put into developing these policies. Are their decisions governed by preconceptions or by empirical data?

Are the candidates' decisions governed by preconceptions or by empircal data?

Good leadership is about tackling big challenges: first by recognising issues and understanding their empirical basis, then by marshalling the resources necessary to move forward. We needn't care whether the next president can solve a differential equation, but has he or she thought carefully about what might inform the decisions that will need to be made in the next four years?

For instance, several of the candidates have talked about alternative energy sources such as biofuels. How will recent studies that suggest biofuel production could increase carbon emissions impact on their proposals?

Some candidates have openly supported a crewed mission to Mars. But what about concerns that investing money in such missions is causing NASA to reduce support for uncrewed science missions - including Earth orbiting satellites that may be important for assessing global climate change?

All of the candidates have spoken in support of the America Competes Act, which calls for substantial increases in funding for basic research to preserve US economic competitiveness. What do they think of the current omnibus budget passed by Congress, which removed all such increases, and how will their budget priorities affect research and competitiveness?

All of the candidates have spoken out on nuclear power as an energy alternative, some in support and some against. How do they view investments in nuclear energy compared to conservation technologies? And what do they think about the waste disposal issues and the potential impacts on nuclear proliferation?

The purpose of the debate is not - perhaps surprisingly to those who assume that every advocacy group is based on self-interest - to get scientists a better deal. It is to elevate important policy issues in our national public dialogue as America chooses its next president.

The small group that originally came together to propose the debate was largely comprised of non-scientists. Scientists and non-scientists alike are advocating the debate because we know that everyone's quality of life depends intimately on both the health of science and technology as a tool for improving the world and, crucially, on the ability of the leadership of the United States to use these tools wisely in making decisions that will affect all of our futures.

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

From issue 2643 of New Scientist magazine, 16 February 2008, page 50