Candidates Get Schooled on Science, Await Grades

BY Jenny Marder  September 11, 2012 at 3:05 PM EDT

A large tree nymph sits on the finger of a visitor at a science center in Bremen, Germany. Photo by Ingo Wagner/AFP/GettyImages.

A group called Science Debate has been trying for nearly five years now to thrust science into the spotlight of the presidential campaign. Back in 2008, backed by 12,000 scientists and business leaders, the group called for a debate on science between President Obama and Senator John McCain. It didn’t happen.

But they’re still at it. Last week, they released 14 answers from each of the presidential candidates on what they’ve determined to be “the most important science questions facing the nation.” Suggested questions were crowdsourced from the public and refined down to this list. And this time, both candidates responded by deadline. (In 2008, McCain’s answers were sent in only after Obama’s had already been posted.)

You can see Obama and Romney’s answers laid out side by side here. Topics cover climate change, energy, biosecurity, space, science education, food, conservation and ocean health.

The country is in a state of political paralysis on many of these issues, said Shawn Lawrence Otto, Science Debate co-founder and author of the book, “Fool me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.
And the reason, he said, is our elected representatives “haven’t had their feet held to the fire by the public and the press.”

“It’s like a couple in a bad marriage,” Otto said. “If you don’t sit down and talk about what’s not working, there’s no hope for making it better.”

Once again, the group has invited both presidential candidates to participate in a science-only debate. Science Debate has committed to covering expenses. The University of Minnesota has agreed to host. No moderator has been chosen, but organizers say they prefer a team approach: one moderator whose expertise is in science and science policy paired with an experienced political journalist who knows how to ask pointed questions.

Meanwhile, candidates will get graded on their answers by a team at Scientific American. The grades and accompanying analysis will be released mid-October in the November edition of the magazine.

The evaluations won’t be letter grades; that’s too U.S.-centric, and it’s important that the answers be accessible to an international audience, said Christine Gorman, senior editor at Scientific American. Instead, each individual response will be graded according to five categories, each worth 20 points. Categories include directness and completeness, scientific accuracy, feasibility, sustainability and health, environment and education benefits.

While President Obama’s questions were fairly concise, he may lose points for focusing more on past accomplishments and current policy than future policy plans. Gov. Romney’s answers were longer winded and contained common themes, such as deregulation and private sector dominance. But some, like his answer to food safety, had few details. More on that in this Scientific American post.

“If I had any wish for the Obama answers, it’s that they would have been more aspirational and forward looking,” Otto said. “For Romney, I wish they would be a little bit more open-minded about the complexities of the relationship between science, government and private industry, and our challenges as a country. When you apply an ideological filter, it’s hard sometimes to see all the options.”

Plus, he pointed out, both candidates sidestepped the question on climate change.
That’s another argument for a science-only debate, Gorman said, which would provide an opportunity for follow-up questions.

“Science in some ways is hidden, and people don’t always realize that it’s there,” Gorman said. “The image of science is, you’re in a white coat, you’ve got beakers, things are bubbling in them, and probably everyone is wearing horn-rimmed glasses. But really, many of the issues that we talk about in the election, when we’re thinking of challenges to the United States and to the world, depend on scientific understanding.”