A debate that wasn’t says much about science in U.S.

It’s Sunday, May 11th (Happy Mother’s Day!) and I am very excited because my opinion piece on the proposed presidential science debate (“Science Debate 2008“) was just published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and already picked up by the University of Pennsylvania’s Newsweek.com feed and the National Basketball Association’s newsfeed.

Here’s the published version. Posted in its entirety below.   Let me know what you think. I’d like your opinions on my opinions.  Cheers!

Sometimes, when an event doesn’t happen, it’s significant news.

Last month, the presidential candidates did not gather at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia for a debate about the role of science in national policy and prosperity. An effort billed as “Sciencedebate 2008” had promised to make that dialogue happen. It flopped. And not because the candidate’s weren’t interested.

By all accounts, the candidates took their lead from the public-which wasn’t connecting. Such apathy says much about the crisis in science literacy and citizen engagement in science.

ScienceDebate 2008 could have done much better in enlisting the public, in creating a true collaboration. Positioned by organizers as a “citizen-led, grassroots initiative,” the debate was supposed to open discussions too often confined to academe: the environment, health, medicine, sound science policy, and support for American research. An influential corps of organizers and co-sponsors had lined up, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, and more than 160 American universities. 

And it never happened.

Well, it should have, it still can, and I hope it does. The need for a real science debate is clear. Let’s make it a pocketbook issue: Roughly half the nation’s growth in GDP over the past 50 years has arisen from science-related innovation, yet the U.S. government invests less in all physical sciences research than IBM spends a year on R&D. The United States, long the center of science innovation, is producing fewer scientists. Lawrence Krauss at Case Western University projects that more than 90 percent of all scientists and engineers will live in Asia by 2010. 

Anxiety over China’s booming R&D efforts and concerns that we are losing our competitive edge are valid. Yet there is hope if we shift our thinking and decide to function as a unit: scientists, government and the public.

One way to respond is to involve the public, especially skeptical groups, in policy decisions. Bruce Gellin is the head of the National Vaccine Program Office. His office is developing safety questions about immunization _ and also making an effort to include vaccine critics in the development of the questions.  Other nations have been quicker to recognize the need to engage the public. The European Union and Denmark include public participation when setting national science policy, for example.

Sciencedebate 2008 failed in part because it did not try hard enough to include the public.  It seems as if this judgment, from the journal Nature, might fit: “For all that it claims to be a `grass-roots’ phenomenon, the proposed debate can be seen as an attempt by various elite institutions to grab the microphone and set the agenda from the top down.”

 Without public support, it is not surprising the ScienceDebate did not materialize. There’s a better way forward. Average citizens, untrained in the sciences, are clamoring to be engaged in science. A growing number of so-called “citizen scientists” are not waiting for an invitation, or hoping the next generation will improve on its dismal science literacy rates. Instead, they are jumping in to change the way science gets done. 

Citizen scientists monitor water quality, tag butterflies, count birds, record earthquake tremors, observe and record celestial patterns.

In July, news of Sky Survey, an international collaboration mapping a large section of the universe, spread over the Web. Within a few months, more than 100,000 volunteer citizen scientists classified more than 1 million galaxies. 

John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y, notes that as “more and more amateurs and the researchers they work with realize the potential, and people see that their contributions matter, the era of the citizen scientist will explode.”

The organizers of Sciencedebate should draw on the impressive energy of the collective science organizations to find new ways to engage the public. Trust the public’s capacity to learn, draw conclusions, and contribute. Invite the public to do science. Put a process in place so citizens and scientists can impart sound policy advice to Congress. 

Without public support, science policy will languish for the next presidential term and the next. 

Darlene Cavalier (darlene@sciencecheerleader.com) is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader who studied the role of citizens in science policy as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. [Professionally] she  creates public science programs for Discover Magazine, Disney, Space.com and the National Science Foundation and is the voice of the ScienceCheerleader.com.