Advancing Leadership in Science & Technology

The debates among candidates vying for President in 2016 are well under way, but if the past debates are any indication, no one will be asked a question involving the candidates’ understanding of science and technology. That is really a shame, since almost everything involving policy today rests on science and technology.

In the mid-20th century, the great mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, “Almost everything that distinguishes the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science.” A world in which only a fraction of the population understands science is a world that disturbs me. And a world in which our Presidential candidates are mum about science disturbs me even more.

Just in time for this political season, a public opinion poll of U.S. adults commissioned by Research!America and ScienceDebate.org conducted by Zogby Analytics found that only 45% of Americans say they are well-informed about the positions of the current Presidential candidates regarding public policies and public funding for science and innovation. And yet 87% of Americans say it is important that candidates for President and Congress have a basic understanding of the science informing public policy issues. Seventy seven percent of respondents said that journalists should ask candidates about their views on scientific issues. The results are largely the same whether the respondents are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

There is so much in this survey that is worth looking at. To view the poll results, click here.

“With Nobel Prize announcements in the news…, science is in the public consciousness but is it top of mind for the candidates?” asks Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America. “This new poll shows how important science is to Americans and their quality of life. It is time for candidates to articulate their vision for maintaining America’s leadership in science.”

The poll found that 87% of Americans say scientific innovations are improving our standard of living. When asked “in which areas in your life do you think scientific research has played an important role?”, health care and energy were the top two responses across party lines, followed by “protecting the environment” among Democrats and “communication and the internet” among Republicans and Independents.

But this is not really a partisan issue: 77% of respondents agree that public policies should be based on the best available science; 84% agree that science should not be partisan, that is, not the sole business of one political party of another. Finally, 84% of Americans say it is important for scientists to inform elected officials and the public about their research and its impact on society.

“Evidence from science is the great equalizer in a democracy,” says Shawn Otto, chair of ScienceDebate.org, an organization that has long pushed for a science-themed U.S. presidential debate. “We are living in a new age when science affects every aspect of public policy, and voters want candidates to give science issues like climate change, healthcare, GMO foods, and jobs in the new tech economy a higher priority.”

So the take-away for all of us are the following: Write to the networks and cable stations hosting the debates and ask them to ask the candidates their views on science.

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