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State of the science debate

Reuters file
Will Barack Obama and
Hillary Clinton face off on
science in April? We'll see.

Prospects for a presidential debate focusing on science and technology next month are on the upswing, thanks in large part to the fact that the Democratic nomination is still in play. Debate organizers say all three major candidates – Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democrats as well as the GOP's presumptive nominee, John McCain – are thinking about attending the tentatively scheduled April 18 event.

Science Debate 2008 would be presented at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute at a key time, four days before the Pennsylvania primary. But will it actually take place? That depends on political calculations so complex they'd leave mathematicians scratching their heads.

If Clinton had done poorly in the Texas and Ohio primaries, Pennsylvania would have become irrelevant in the Democratic campaign. Science Debate 2008 would probably have put its months-long effort to drum up a debate on science and technology issues - ranging from global climate change and stem cell research to energy policy and technological innovation - on hold until after this summer's nominating conventions.

However, with Clinton resurgent, it's almost certain there will be a debate in Pennsylvania - so why not make it the Science Debate? For the Franklin Institute, the event would cap a week devoted to celebrating the top achievements in science. Lynda Bramble, the institute's director of public relations and communications, told me that the auditorium already has been set aside for an April 18 presidential debate.

"I want the Science Debate here," she said. "I don't want anything to get in the way of that."

At a surrogate science debate presented in Boston a couple of weeks ago, physicist Lawrence Krauss theorized that there was a 20 percent chance of the candidates actually showing up for April's debate. Today, he quipped that the chances were at "80 percent ... or 1 percent."

Clinton is the most likely to go for a Science Debate: "I think her campaign views it as having the greatest value for them," said Krauss, a professor at Case Western Reserve University who helped kick off the Science Debate campaign with an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times.

Clinton not only needs to play a serious game of catch-up in the delegate race, but she also has given science and technology issues more visibility than the other candidates have.

To be sure, Obama's campaign has drawn up detailed policy statements on science and technology - and as ranking GOP member of the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, McCain also knows the territory. But the conventional wisdom is that Obama would see less of a need to join a debate on a niche topic, while McCain would likely wait at least until he knows who he's running against.

Shawn Lawrence Otto, one of the lead organizers behind Science Debate 2008, gave me some unconventional reasons why Obama and McCain might want to attend.

"From the Democrats' point of view, it is going to be particularly important for the candidates to find new ways to differentiate themselves from each other," Otto told me. "These are issues that all voters are really concerned about. This debate gives each of the candidates an opportunity to paint a big vision for the future of America and the world."

Even though a multiparty debate before the conventions would be unorthodox, Otto argued that the Republicans might want to get a piece of the action as well. "Really, from McCain's point of view, he's in a general-election race now, and he needs to appeal to the vast majority of moderate swing voters who care about these issues," Otto said.

Otto and his colleagues at Science Debate 2008 say they are currently in the midst of a delicate dance with network executives and campaign representatives. To my mind, the best they can hope for is a Democratic debate at the Franklin Institute that may include a brief nod to science and technology (as a courtesy to the hosts) while putting more weight on less geeky issues - such as Iraq, the economy and negative campaigning.

Complicating the matter is the fact that the Franklin Institute is facing some stiff competition from another potential debate venue. The National Constitution Center, just a couple of blocks away from the Liberty Bell, is reportedly making its own pitch for a campaign face-off in Philly.

But who knows? If scientists can put a man on the moon, why shouldn't they be able to get a woman and two men to talk about science for a couple of hours?

While we're on the subject...
What happens when politics and space policy mix on the Internet? You can find out by checking these Web sites:

  • Space Democrats is a recently created discussion forum with the stated mission of "defining, advocating and enacting a progressive U.S. space policy."
  • Space Advocates for Obama has just been set up to focus attention on Obama's policies on space exploration (and perhaps to get the Obama campaign to focus its attention on space as well). The site is linked to the Space Policy Advisory Group, and there's talk that a similar space-advocacy Web site might be created for Clinton supporters as well.
  • John McCain says on his Web site that he's a "strong supporter of NASA and the space program." If anyone has Internet links for Republican-leaning space advocates, pass them along as comments below and I'll make sure they're added here.
  • Space Politics provides straight talk on space policy no matter what your political persuasion may be, courtesy of blogmaster Jeff Foust.

And on the engineering frontier...
Technological innovation may not get voters as fired up as other issues in the campaign, but we did receive some fiery comments in the wake of our story about the 21st century's Grand Challenges for Engineering. Here's a selection:

Ray Hull, Prescott, Ariz.: "The greatest challenge at present is to overcome the misinformation with respect to global warming.  A good look at the science will make it clear that Al Gore and others are doing a great injustice to the poor people of the world.  At the present course we will waste trillions of dollars on an effort that will not change signficantly over the 1,500-year cycle of global warming and cooling that has been going on for millions of years. Green is needed, but trying to influence the global climate will harm the human race by diverting resources that otherwise could be used to help the disadvantaged and to develop a way to feed the 8 billion people the world will have soon.  A great index to the data is located at CO2science.org."

CO2Science.org definitely has a particular slant on the issue, Ray. I can't really let that go without at least mentioning the award-winning RealClimate Web site as well.

Carol Kelso, Birmingham, Ala., on carbon sequestration: "Why is this a good option? We live on a planet that has a surface with a tendency to shift and move.  Could earthquakes and other seismic disturbances cause carbon dioxide stored underground to be released?  What if we had a lot of it stored and then a catastrophic earthquake sent all of it into the atmosphere?  Is there a way to stream carbon dioxide into space?  If so, would this be harmful to anything or anyone in the future?"

I'm pretty sure expelling carbon dioxide into space would be an engineering challenge beyond our current capability - but check out this report if you want to learn more about carbon sequestration.

Mark Flahaut: "I read your article on the top engineering challenges.  I was a little upset by several of the challenges being characterized as engineering tasks as opposed to medical science tasks.

"Often, you will hear of a successful quarterback as having 'engineered a winning drive.'  I grow weary of hearing the term not used properly, at least in my view.

"Four of the items on the list were not engineering tasks in my view. They are
a) advanced health informatics
b) engineering better medicines
c) reverse-engineering the brain
d) advancing personal learning

"My definition of engineering is using math, science, physics, as well as important testing and research where the math has not been figured out yet to develop and improve devices, structures, electronic gizmos, etc.  I know that was a little vague. My point is this: The above list is in the areas of medical research and behavior research.  I have been an engineer for nearly 20 years. Perhaps my idea of a typical engineer is limited as compared to the average person out there in America.

"Please understand that I'm not attacking you but rather the list. I like the challenge of coming up with a practical and cheap way of using solar power.  I believe we need to put more true thought into saving power. The compact fluorescent bulbs have cut quite a bit off my electrical use.  But reducing consumption is only part of the long term solution. Alternative power is the other part as only so many fossil-fuel sources are left before we suck them up. We need to really turn up the wind power development sector.

"I would say the list of the non-engineering problems needing solutions are needed but 'aimed' at the wrong academic sector. It is very important for our society to develop and equip our nations teachers with the best tools money can buy. We are a very rich country but intellectually poor as compared to many other nations. It is a matter of time before we decline if we don't wake up and catch our kids up in math and science when compared to other industrialized nations.

"If we can't teach our children well, how can we solve the list's problems? My 2 cents."

Great comments, Mark. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends on what your definition of "engineering" is.

David Boyle (no relation, by the way): "I find it extremely disappointing that none of the fixes mentioned in Greatest Challenge addressed the root problem - that there are way too many of us.

"This used to be a nice place to live and grow up in, no matter what species you happened to be. Now, if you're not a member of the human race, you are expendable, with the only thing slowing your demise being how useful a creature / plant you happen to be. The human race is no smarter than it was 40,000 years ago, but unfortunately for the earth's biosphere we now also have technologies to ravage the planet (and once we perfect robots, that ravaging can be done from the comfort of our air-conditioned control rooms!). What's even worse is the budding world populace that wants to be like the people of the U.S. of A., who are without a doubt most wasteful populace on the planet. Considering the ridiculously high proportion of people in this country who think like King George, the engineers and scientists who made the list don't need to worry about making inroads on global warming.  'We the People' aren't interested in things best left to our grandchildren. I have a feeling that a lot of those grandchildren would spit on our graves if they knew how great a place this used to be, and that we were partially responsible for the latest Great Extinction.

"If I remember right, the world's most populous animals are ants, spiders and termites.  I have no doubt whatever that the most damaging, most globally detrimental one is us.  Unless and until we recognize that we are but one of tens of millions of species that have evolved over earth's history, and recognize that what we are doing to the planet is bad, is disgraceful, and is in fact, as King George would say, evil, the long-term future of this planet is doomed.

"I worried about The Bomb when I was a kid, and used to think that World War III would be a very bad thing.  Now I'm not so sure.  WWIII would most definitely have been grotesque and likely would have killed tens and maybe hundreds of millions of people.  The downside to not having a WWIII is that without it, the human race will continue expanding until something really, really bad finally levels the playing field.  If history teaches anything, it's that population expansions cannot continue indefinitely (unless we find another planet to wreck).  So we can either try to do something about our planetary infestation - though I haven't a clue how - or sit back and smother in our own filth. (Personally I find the thought of New York, Chicago and all our other great cities becoming like Calcutta sickening...though that's exactly the direction we are going, and going there world wide.)

"I wish population control - city, state, and/or global - would at least have made honorable mention. Then again, it's maybe too hard a problem for even the smartest of guys to think about.  Too bad, too. Up until we got here, planet Earth was a really swell place.

"Oh, and I do realize you're the messenger here.  Normally I like what you've got to say."

Thanks for not shooting the messenger, Dave ... even though that would free up a bit of extra space.  ;-)

Hugh O. Coleman, Kelso, Wash., on the Grand Challenges: "They left out the most important facet. We must actually do on the required scale, in many cases, things we already know how to do. We must actually act, not just talk."

I'll vote for that.