Creating an Intersection for Politics and Science

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The Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minnesota)

Creating an Intersection for Politics and Science

by
Elizabeth Sullivan

"Almost all of the major challenges we will face as a nation in this new century, from the environment, national security and economic competitiveness to energy strategies, have a scientific or technological basis."

- Lawrence Krauss, a Case Western Reserve University physicist, writing in a Wall Street Journal commentary

If the mandate from Iowa is change, Barack Obama is courting it with his call for a national chief technology officer and a science and technology policy that delights Silicon Valley.

The Illinois senator and Iowa Democratic caucus winner even went out to visit Google a couple of months ago, hyping his Internet "net neutral" policies that would keep the Web a freeway.

His nine-page technology manifesto also advocates targeted visa changes and educational reforms designed to keep high-tech jobs in the United States.

It's by far the most detailed tech policy on the campaign trail to date - and could mark the coming of age of science in the presidential campaign.

Reflecting a backlash against a White House seen as anti-science, most of the Democratic candidates advocate a sharp rise in federal scientific investments.

Similar to Obama, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards also call for a tech adviser and better access for the White House science adviser to the Oval Office.

Even the fringe candidates are thinking ahead.

Cleveland's Rep. Dennis Kucinich has a great idea for a Works Green Administration that would have the federal government lead the way in the switch to greener buildings.

It's a sharp contrast with the Republican presidential debate last spring when three candidates - Iowa Republican caucus winner Mike Huckabee among them - raised their hands to signal that they didn't believe in evolution.

In fact, almost all of the candidates now address science policy in some way, thanks to the leaping price of oil.

Even so, the nitty-gritty of science policy and technological change that could affect Americans decades from now continues to take a back seat on the campaign trail.

This is despite an effort by thousands of scientists, academicians and business figures who've banded together in a group called Science Debate 2008 to promote more intelligent scientific discussion in the presidential contest.

Sadly, U.S. politicians who must face the voters every two to four years are not known for their forward thinking, even in an era of unprecedented global competition not just for jobs but for the brightest minds and future innovations.

A recent National Academy of Sciences study warned in dire terms that years of underinvestment in scientific research and deficient science and math education threaten to undermine U.S. competitiveness.

The problem is that few politicians grasp the stakes, said Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence Krauss.

"It's not clear to me that they recognize how vitally important to the economy all these issues relative to scientific research are," Krauss said in an interview.

Krauss, who is on the steering committee of Science Debate 2008, says the group wants the candidates to show both basic scientific literacy and demonstrate that they know what questions to ask - and whom to ask them of - about such futuristic issues.

At least the issue is attracting wide support within the scientific establishment. "It's getting better than I thought it would," Krauss said.

"I think we have 6,000-something signed on to date, mostly scientists," but also including the presidents of Case, Stanford, Princeton and CalTech, Krauss said, as well as "both Ph.D physicists" in Congress.

The Ph.D physicists are a bipartisan duo, he added: One, Vern Ehlers of Michigan, is a Republican, and the other, Rush Holt of New Jersey, is a Democrat.

"Almost all of the major challenges we will face as a nation in this new century, from the environment, national security and economic competitiveness to en-ergy strategies, have a scientific or technological basis," Krauss wrote last month in a Wall Street Journal commentary.

"Can a president who is not comfortable thinking about science hope to lead instead of follow?"

It's a very good question.

Elizabeth Sullivan is foreign affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages for the Plain Dealer of Cleveland. Her e-mail address is bsullivan@plaind.com.

© 2008 The Pioneer Press

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