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Scientists, Journalists Push for Science-based Election Debate

But through all the talk, little focus has been paid to issues involving science and technology, argue the organizers of a grassroots coalition called Science Debate 2008.

Backed by 21 Nobel laureates and more than 12,000 scientists and business leaders, the group is calling for clear answers from the top presidential candidates on issues related to science and technology.

“It’s amazing that no one is talking about these issues, which I believe are the most important issues facing America,” said Matthew Chapman, a journalist, screenwriter and one of the project’s main organizers — who, it so happens, is also Charles Darwin’s great great grandson.

Questions, which would be decided by a non-partisan panel of scientists, would focus on policy issues and could range from air pollution to childhood diabetes to the impact of technological innovation on an ailing economy. It won’t be a science quiz, organizers have promised. They are quick to emphasize that their aim is to reach across party lines to provide a venue for discussion of these issues.

Some possible topics include: How will the next president of the United States encourage scientific and technological competitiveness? What emphasis will the next president place on science education? What should be done about threats to global water supplies? What should be done about climate change?

The growing list of supporters reads like a who’s who of science. Endorsers include science heavyweights such as biologist Craig Venter, paleontologist Jack Horner, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss, who is also part of the steering committee.

“When I first called for the debate, I didn’t think it was likely,” Krauss said. “It seemed like a call from the wild…But I’ve just been shocked at the avalanche of interest from all quarters.”

In the past two weeks, two new cosponsors have joined with the group: the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Council on Competitiveness, a coalition of business executives, labor leaders and university presidents. Also endorsing the debate are congressional representatives from both parties, several universities, and editors and publishers from science magazines including Science, Nature, Scientific American, Seed and The Scientist.

“Science and engineering have driven half the nation’s growth in gross domestic product over the last half-century and lie at the center of many of the major policy and economic challenges the next president will face,” AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner said in a statement released on Jan. 24. Leshner has also joined the group’s steering committee.

In the past few months, Chapman and filmmaker Shawn Lawrence Otto, who are both affected by the writer’s strike, turned their full-time focus to the project. They formed a non-profit, recruited thousands of supporters and began talks with major networks. If all goes as planned, the presidential frontrunners should expect invitations in the mail by the end of next week.

“This is the danger of what happens when writers have not enough to do,” Otto joked.

Two years ago, Chapman covered a landmark court case in Dover, Pa., for Harper’s magazine. The case found it unconstitutional for a school to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. During the trial, scientists were called to the stand to teach aspects of molecular biology, modern genetics and paleontology in an effort to explain the science behind evolution. The teaching of science was so vital to the case that parts the trial were likened to a biology class.

“I saw in the context of that trial how it was possible to talk about quite complicated scientific information in a way that is easy to understand,” Chapman said. “But then I started watching the presidential debates and was astonished how little conversation there was about science and technology.” There was little or no talk about environmental policy, medical research or decoding the genome, he added.

So he “dragooned” a few friends, including Otto and science blogger Chris Mooney. Mooney recruited Duke University marine biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum and Krauss. Then John Rennie, editor of Scientific American, jumped onboard.

The core team of organizers stay in constant contact through an online chat room that they call a “virtual office.”

“People are extraordinarily passionate about this issue,” Otto said. “It’s amazing how incredibly quickly people say, ‘Yes, this needs to happen.’ And we’re constantly saying, ‘Let’s push this faster. Let’s push this harder.'”

Much work remains to be done. A location has not been announced, though Otto said the group is in final negotiations on a site. Of course, the top candidates must agree to participate.

“I think that what we hope to do eventually is to try and regain the enthusiasm for science and technology that existed in the ’50s and ’60s,” Chapman said. “While there are obviously some serious challenges that have to be met, there is also great opportunity. And we would like to bring that to the forefront of debate in this country. We would like to bring this into the consciousness of America.”

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