Calling for a Presidential Debate on Science

by Heather Thorstensen | Jun 11, 2015

This is a guest post written by Sheril Kirshenbaum. Keyed In invited her to submit this post as part of a series of guest posts focused on solutions to the “war on science.”

“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." ~ Thomas Jefferson, Scientist-statesman

The recent discussion among Sigma Xi members about the so-called “war on science” underscored the importance of science to the policymaking process. In the Fall of 2016, Americans will vote for the next president of the United States. He or she will be responsible for making critical decisions related to science policies that will influence the way we—and our children—live in the coming decades. 

ScienceDebateBut will we have a chance to hear the candidates’ science-related priorities before going to the polls? That’s the primary mission of ScienceDebate. Launched in 2008, this 501c3 nonpartisan, nonprofit initiative works to encourage presidential candidates to attend live science debates. We are not interested in quizzing those seeking office about specific scientific facts, but we do expect to hear what their science policy priorities would be if elected.

The issues that ScienceDebate focuses on, from energy and climate change to health and drought, are not only “science” challenges, they are humanity’s challenges, inherently connected to how we live and who we are. Regardless of party affiliation, the future of food, water, human health, and safety will affect every one of us.

Today over 44,000 supporters including Congresspeople, Nobel laureates, over 100 university presidents, actors, writers, and many organizations—including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academies—have added their names to this nonpartisan statement:

“Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for public debates in which the U.S. presidential and congressional candidates share their views on the issues of science and technology policy, health and medicine, and the environment.” 

ScienceDebate has had some success already. During the past two presidential elections, President Obama, Senator McCain, and former Governor Romney responded in writing to 14 questions cultivated and reviewed by our team on science and technology policy. The candidates’ answers were widely distributed in print and online prior to the elections through partnerships with popular magazines and journals. President Obama formed his science policy team to help him respond. Voters made decisions with knowledge they would not otherwise have had, and the president arrived in office with a clear idea of how science fit into his overall strategic objectives. 

What’s different about 2016?

Consider: When we launched in 2008, just six of 2,975 interview questions to presidential candidates mentioned "climate change" or "global warming." (For comparison, three mentioned UFOs). 

Now as the next election approaches, candidates from both major parties are already talking about climate change. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s is the first major presidential campaign to make it a central campaign topic on day one. 

In other words, times are changing, culture is changing, and we are changing…ScienceDebate is currently scaling up our efforts and we want your support. By signing on at, you can help leverage the national conversation toward real solutions to our most pressing national and global challenges. By adding your name to the growing list of supporters on our website, you can help us make the case that science isn’t just a special interest group, but important to a significant portion of the American public and should be part of the campaign trail conversation. You can find more at our Facebook page as well, which features regular updates. We also encourage you to submit questions you would like to hear presidential candidates address on such topics as science education, climate change, food security, mental health research, drought, oceans, and human health in general.

Science isn’t a special interest, but central to how we live and the kind of world we’ll leave for children over the coming decades. So let’s work together to make sure that we know where candidates stand on significant science policies before Election Day.

Sheril Kirshenbaum is executive director of ScienceDebate, director of The University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll, and co-author (with Chris Mooney) of  Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.


Sheril recently spoke to Huffington Post Live about
To watch the video, click here

Sheril Kirshenbaum

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