February 22, 2008

Skorton Signs Petitition to Debate on Science in America

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In 2000, when former U.S. Vice President Al Gore was running for our nation’s highest office, his position on global warming would not have garnered him a Nobel Peace Prize — he was virtually silent on the issue. In 2008, this trend continues, as current presidential candidates rarely bring up science and technology policy problems. This lack of action prompted the beginning of ScienceDebate2008, a movement to invite the presidential candidates to debate on science and technology-related issues.
To correct the problem, President David Skorton, along with other university presidents, science organizations, members of Congress, technology companies like Intel and 17,000 individual supporters, signed a petition to show support for the debate.
Although the presidential candidates have yet to respond to the debate’s invitation, the event is set for April 18 at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
The debate comes amidst news of President George W. Bush’s recent budget proposal for 2009. While increasing some funding for areas like the U.S. Department of Defense’s research and development, the proposal continued to cut funding for many critical departments that deal with science-related issues, like NASA’s science portfolio. Moreover, even though some departments like National Institutes of Health experienced no change in their budget, their budgets actually decrease when adjusted for inflation.
[img_assist|nid=28084|title=Looking ahead|desc=President David Skorton addresses the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs regarding his global university initiative in the Plant Science building last Thursday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
The fact that many government departments are affected by science highlights one of the fundamental ideas underlying the debate: the importance of science in all aspects of life.
Shawn Lawrence Otto, CEO of Science Debate, Inc., said, “Our overall objective is to elevate the national public political dialogue into talking about these issues that are critical to almost every major challenge the next president is going to face.”
Otto and other debate organizers have structured the issues to be discussed at the debate into three categories: environment, health and medicine and science and technology policy.
“The general public [showed] in polling shows that they’re extraordinarily concerned about climate change, health care, and the economy,” Otto said. “If you talk about [these topics] like ‘This is about your family, about your job, about your health, about the health of the planet,’ everyone gets it and everyone gets that science is critical to our national economic strength and our position in the world.”
Robert Richardson, senior vice provost for research, was one of 25 Nobel Laureates to sign the petition for the debate. He echoed Otto’s sentiments.
“It’s very important to have it in the political agenda for this season of elections because I firmly believe that the only way this country can get out of the economic mess that we have been in is through the ingenuity of people and investing in things that are science- and technology-based,” said Richardson, who is also a professor of physics. “The fundamental breakthroughs in basic science and engineering take a very long time. You don’t necessarily have a time scale of periods between congressional elections so that we have to have a science policy that commits over the long term, not just 4 years, to support researchers, and we don’t have that.”
The lack of sound legislative proposals for science greatly worried James Welch ’10, an applied engineering and physics major. He specifically questioned the presidential candidates’ basic competency to even propose good legislation in this area.
“They’re all politicians by trade and don’t seem to have too much intellectual interest in science,” he said. “I think the debate will be really effective in showing the big problem with the way the system works, where the politicians are trained to learn how to win an election, and then to run a country. They’re legislating science and science funding, and they really don’t understand it, which is a big problem.”
As for the current candidates, none really emerges as a frontrunner in proposing science policies, or at least in getting their opinions about science heard.
“I don’t think we know enough,” Otto said about the three major candidates. “The Clinton campaign has done the most detailed of the four major remaining candidates, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the others haven’t thought about it or aren’t in the process of putting something together. John McCain has had an extremely positive record in the Senate as far as science is concerned, and he’s never shied away from tackling climate change, for instance. The Obama campaign has talked about certain initiatives that are really going to affect the next generation, and that’s really what science policy is all about. All three of them have their strengths. We just need to see more specifics.”
Nevertheless, most seem to agree that as support for research lags in the United States, its competitiveness in the science arena falls by the wayside. In some cases, this has even caused some scientists to leave for other countries, including Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins, two renowned cancer scientists who moved to Singapore two years ago for research.
“I think research in the U.S. is not on par with our potential. Given all the resources we have, I think our research programs could be even more impressive,” said Christen Kisch ’08, president of the Pre-Professional Association Toward Careers in Health, which frequently holds panels on student research. “They’re impressive in comparison to countries that don’t have the same resources as we do, but we could be doing a lot more with it definitely. That’s why it’s really important to support initiatives like the science debate.”