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Science debate moves on

— Now that the presidential primary season is winding down, the effort to organize a national candidates' forum on issues relating to science and technology is shifting to the post-convention phase of the campaign. A survey conducted for ScienceDebate 2008 and Research!America indicates that most Americans are hungry for such a debate, with health care leading the list of topics. Despite that, the debate never came together during the primaries.

"Only the McCain campaign gave us the courtesy of a formal response: a polite decline that left the door open for the general election," Shawn Lawrence Otto, ScienceDebate 2008's chief executive officer, said in an e-mail to supporters. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, also focused on the sci-tech frontier this week in a major speech about climate policy.

The Democratic contenders - front-runner Barack Obama and one-time front-runner Hillary Clinton - passed up several chances to sign onto the debate, even though they sent surrogates to a Boston forum sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In his e-mail, Otto confirmed that "we are now making a planned shift to the second phase of our effort, focusing on the general election."

Otto also reflected on why ScienceDebate 2008 fizzled out during the primaries, despite a wave of high-level support:

"Part of the problem, from our perspective, is a perception in the media, particularly the political editors, that this is a niche debate.  We have saturated coverage in the science community, but have had a very difficult time getting the mainstream national media to cover this effort at all, despite numerous and frequent attempts; they believe that issues like religion loom far larger in this election and science simply doesn't sell papers. Science has also been somewhat nonvocal and under political attack over the last several years, and this has helped to create the inaccurate perception of an uninfluential minority.

"The media help to steer the public's attention and the national dialogue, and the candidates respond to this, and it has become an accepted assumption. But is it right? We argue that this assumption is wrong: science is not niche, and it does matter to a majority of Americans - in fact it matters a lot. But policymakers and editors need to know that, and they're not going to poll for it on their own. We argue that this wrong assumption is part of the very problem we are fighting to turn around, and that exposing it is one of the more important goals of this initiative.

"So we teamed up with Research!America to do a national poll of public attitudes about science and politics and found that what we've suspected all along is in fact true: there is overwhelming public support for this idea - and the support is equal among both Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, scientific integrity is even more important among Republicans."

Is there any chance that sci-tech issues (such as medicine, energy, climate and environment, innovation, education, economic development, space) will get a better airing during the general election campaign? Or will it be more of the same? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.