By now, American voters are well versed on Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall along the Mexican border and the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails. But they have yet to hear much from the presidential candidates about NASA and space.
Scientists and engineers want science to play a more prominent role in the presidential campaign. They have published a list of the top 20 science questions for the candidates and are pushing for a debate devoted exclusively to science.
The effort to highlight scientific issues is being led by ScienceDebate.org, a coalition of 56 major science organizations and universities in the United States, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences. Shawn Otto, author of The War on Science and ScienceDebate.org’s founder, says these organizations collectively represent 10 million voters.
Otto says he wants the political debate to treat science as it did in the early 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy vowed to put a man on the moon.
“Americans used to celebrate science, and presidential campaigns were anxious to embrace it on the campaign trail,” Otto says. Conversely, “candidates shied away from talking about religion because it was too personal and too divisive.”
Now the reverse is true.
The 2016 election is the third in which ScienceDebate.org has tried to set up a presidential debate about science. In 2008, then-Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican nominee John McCain faced off at a family and faith forum in Pennsylvania, but passed on debating science. Both, however, submitted written answers to questions to ScienceDebate.org. Efforts in 2012 to set up a science debate also fizzled, although, President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney sent in written answers to 14 questions.
This year’s 20 questions, published on ScienceDebate.org’s website, were selected from more than 400 submitted to ScienceDebate.org earlier this year. They cover a range of topics including climate change, energy policy, space exploration, and the protection of scientific integrity from political bias.
New topics added this year include mental health, nuclear power, and immigration. A question about opioid addiction features a photo of Prince, who died in June of an accidental overdose of a painkiller.
In addition to Trump and Clinton, questions were also sent to Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. The candidates have been given until September 6 to answer.
The candidates hold opposing views on science. On climate change, for example, Trump tweeted in 2012 that climate change is a Chinese hoax, later said the tweet was a joke, and last year, again called it a hoax. Clinton’s campaign website features a multi-point plan for combating climate change, including a promise to “deliver on the pledge President Obama made at the Paris climate conference…”
Johnson says on his campaign website that the climate is “probably” changing and that man is “probably” contributing to the change. He also suggests that taxes and regulations aimed at slowing global warming are ineffective job-killers. Stein, like Clinton, favors incentives for clean energy production.
Given the unusual nature of this year’s campaign, Otto is not optimistic that the candidates will agree to a science debate. He’s not sure all of them will answer the questions, especially the unpredictable Trump.
“Mr. Trump has been widely portrayed as a demagogue,” he says. “This is his opportunity to show the American public whether or not he is a reasoned individual who cares about these broader issues that impact all voters. To answer these questions is a window into these candidates’ thinking. How much do they rely on evidence? How much do they respect the results of the American scientific enterprise? What is their approach to governing complex issues that have a lot of input from science? Are they going to deny the science or go with the evidence?”