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.

 

  • It’s a shame that there hasn’t been any room provided for scientific discussion so far during this primary season. There’s progressive talk about conservation, global warming and renewable energy use but nothing deeper than proposed plans and stump speeches.

  • It’s a shame that there hasn’t been any room provided for scientific discussion so far during this primary season. There’s progressive talk about conservation, global warming and renewable energy use but nothing deeper than proposed plans and stump speeches.

  • Lauren

    It’s incredibly disappointing that Science is not a focal point for any candidate. We have the American public complaining on a daily basis about gas prices. To me, the only real solution is to find a different source to “fuel” our cars. And that solution comes from Science.
    Without a sufficient education in Science, the average American is not going to be able to come up with the magical solution to fix this problem…among others.
    When I have children in my classroom suggesting cyanobacteria could solve our pollution problem by creating oxygen out of power plant emissions, my heart skips a beat (this is actually already in place at MIT). But I don’t believe children can become this engaged in Science, and the benefits it can provide our planet, unless they have a role model who is equally as excited about the subject. Who could be a better role model than the future president?

  • Lauren

    It’s incredibly disappointing that Science is not a focal point for any candidate. We have the American public complaining on a daily basis about gas prices. To me, the only real solution is to find a different source to “fuel” our cars. And that solution comes from Science.
    Without a sufficient education in Science, the average American is not going to be able to come up with the magical solution to fix this problem…among others.
    When I have children in my classroom suggesting cyanobacteria could solve our pollution problem by creating oxygen out of power plant emissions, my heart skips a beat (this is actually already in place at MIT). But I don’t believe children can become this engaged in Science, and the benefits it can provide our planet, unless they have a role model who is equally as excited about the subject. Who could be a better role model than the future president?

  • Heather Ascher

    Darlene, I have read with interest your article in the Inquirer about the Science Debate that did not happen and share your concern that the “presidential candidates did notgather at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia for a debate about the role of science in national policy and prosperity.” Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this topic will gain momentum as the campaign progresses. While situate in Philadelphia, The Franklin Institute has a national profile as well as other Philadelphia-based organizations such as the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. During Philadelphia’s Mayoral race, PHS hosted a highly successful Democratic candidates’ forum attended by over 1000 people at the Convention Center during the Flower Show about significant environmental and urban greening issues that are germane to cities across the country. I would think that any national debate about science would want to engage organizations, like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, whose staffs are professional urban ecologists with expertise in the practical implementation of environmental projects and initiatives. “Philadelphia Green” is a program of PHS and is the nation’s more comprehensive urban greening program. This program has supported the development and maintenance of community gardens, parks, and high-profile green spaces in Philadelphia.

    Best,
    Heather Ascher

  • Heather Ascher

    Darlene, I have read with interest your article in the Inquirer about the Science Debate that did not happen and share your concern that the “presidential candidates did notgather at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia for a debate about the role of science in national policy and prosperity.” Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this topic will gain momentum as the campaign progresses. While situate in Philadelphia, The Franklin Institute has a national profile as well as other Philadelphia-based organizations such as the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. During Philadelphia’s Mayoral race, PHS hosted a highly successful Democratic candidates’ forum attended by over 1000 people at the Convention Center during the Flower Show about significant environmental and urban greening issues that are germane to cities across the country. I would think that any national debate about science would want to engage organizations, like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, whose staffs are professional urban ecologists with expertise in the practical implementation of environmental projects and initiatives. “Philadelphia Green” is a program of PHS and is the nation’s more comprehensive urban greening program. This program has supported the development and maintenance of community gardens, parks, and high-profile green spaces in Philadelphia.

    Best,
    Heather Ascher

  • Eric Rugart

    Darlene,
    I want to add my approbation and appreciation for your Inquirer commentary. I agree whole heartedly that American citizens are way ahead of their representatives in seeing the value of science, and are looking for a cheerleader, and an agenda setter.

    Examples abound: distributed computing projects such as SETI@home (which may be silly, but gathered millions in conjoined research), MAKE magazine, your own Discover programs – and so much more can be done.

    Witness the head of Genentech admitting that for $1500, every home in America can set up a lab that basically does exactly what they do. Why isn’t everyone involved in discovering disease resistant plants, corn that uses atmospheric nitrogen for fertilizer and other projects sure to benefit the world?
    The science debate isn’t the poison pill politicians think it is. Even devout Americans are ready to decouple faith and scientific process, it is just the frenzied few who dominate the silent majority. I am certain any politician brave enough to flaunt their ignorance and affirm the value of science in our society would secure much. Even using terms like “the theory of gravity” would help to mitigate the silly argument that conjecture and science are of equal value.
    So, I’m, not sure I agree with you in that all the candidates were hoping to have a science debate, but I do agree that the American people want one. Furthermore I’m sure the candidate brave enough to refute the forces of ignorance would do very well. All they need is a cheerleader, and who better to fill that role than yourself?
    All the best and go team go!
    Eric Rugart

  • Eric Rugart

    Darlene,
    I want to add my approbation and appreciation for your Inquirer commentary. I agree whole heartedly that American citizens are way ahead of their representatives in seeing the value of science, and are looking for a cheerleader, and an agenda setter.

    Examples abound: distributed computing projects such as SETI@home (which may be silly, but gathered millions in conjoined research), MAKE magazine, your own Discover programs – and so much more can be done.

    Witness the head of Genentech admitting that for $1500, every home in America can set up a lab that basically does exactly what they do. Why isn’t everyone involved in discovering disease resistant plants, corn that uses atmospheric nitrogen for fertilizer and other projects sure to benefit the world?
    The science debate isn’t the poison pill politicians think it is. Even devout Americans are ready to decouple faith and scientific process, it is just the frenzied few who dominate the silent majority. I am certain any politician brave enough to flaunt their ignorance and affirm the value of science in our society would secure much. Even using terms like “the theory of gravity” would help to mitigate the silly argument that conjecture and science are of equal value.
    So, I’m, not sure I agree with you in that all the candidates were hoping to have a science debate, but I do agree that the American people want one. Furthermore I’m sure the candidate brave enough to refute the forces of ignorance would do very well. All they need is a cheerleader, and who better to fill that role than yourself?
    All the best and go team go!
    Eric Rugart

  • Mike Petrelli

    Darlene:
    I enjoyed reading your piece in the Sunday Inquirer. Perhaps the World Science Festival in New York City May 29 to June 1, 2008 will take up some of the slack from the failed ScienceDebate in helping to engage the public as you would like to see. Anyone interested in the Festival should check out http://www.worldsciencefestival.com.
    Mike Petrelli

  • Mike Petrelli

    Darlene:
    I enjoyed reading your piece in the Sunday Inquirer. Perhaps the World Science Festival in New York City May 29 to June 1, 2008 will take up some of the slack from the failed ScienceDebate in helping to engage the public as you would like to see. Anyone interested in the Festival should check out http://www.worldsciencefestival.com.
    Mike Petrelli

  • JT Lewis

    Great article, Science Cheerleader..
    For one more example of the deluge of conflicting information (and how a political issue– in this case global warming–can impact and even skew findings,) see
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-567285/Global-warming-blame-rise-hurricanes-Atlantic-say-experts.html

    Has Global Warming caused an increase on the number of hurricanes? The intensity? Can scientists even agree on a protocol for evaluation? What’s a would-be informed citizen to believe?

  • JT Lewis

    Great article, Science Cheerleader..
    For one more example of the deluge of conflicting information (and how a political issue– in this case global warming–can impact and even skew findings,) see
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-567285/Global-warming-blame-rise-hurricanes-Atlantic-say-experts.html

    Has Global Warming caused an increase on the number of hurricanes? The intensity? Can scientists even agree on a protocol for evaluation? What’s a would-be informed citizen to believe?

  • I asked Kerry Emanuel, an expert in this area and a Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, to weigh in. Here’s his reply to your question, J:

    First, there is indeed a deluge of conflicting information. We scientists are also deeply conflicted about the issue of hurricanes and global warming. There is strong evidence from a variety of methods that the warming over the last 25 years or so has brought about an increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes, particularly in the Atlantic. But when we run various models forward in time to predict conditions 100 years from now, some of them actually produce fewer hurricanes, while others predict more. All of them predict that hurricanes will become more intense and produce much more rain, but just how much more intense varies greatly from one model to the next.

    It often happens early in a scientific investigation of a phenomenon – in this case, the effect of global warming on hurricanes – that estimates of the effect are conflicting and confusing. We are certainly in that stage now on this issue. But if history is any guide, we will come slowly to understand the problem better and these differences will gradually diminish. But for now, there is no definitive answer, alas.

    Kerry Emanuel

  • I asked Kerry Emanuel, an expert in this area and a Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, to weigh in. Here’s his reply to your question, J:

    First, there is indeed a deluge of conflicting information. We scientists are also deeply conflicted about the issue of hurricanes and global warming. There is strong evidence from a variety of methods that the warming over the last 25 years or so has brought about an increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes, particularly in the Atlantic. But when we run various models forward in time to predict conditions 100 years from now, some of them actually produce fewer hurricanes, while others predict more. All of them predict that hurricanes will become more intense and produce much more rain, but just how much more intense varies greatly from one model to the next.

    It often happens early in a scientific investigation of a phenomenon – in this case, the effect of global warming on hurricanes – that estimates of the effect are conflicting and confusing. We are certainly in that stage now on this issue. But if history is any guide, we will come slowly to understand the problem better and these differences will gradually diminish. But for now, there is no definitive answer, alas.

    Kerry Emanuel

  • Bill Lands

    You have wisdom in recognizing that the Science Debate 2008 failed because it did not try hard enough to include the public. This judgment, from the journal Nature, is on target: “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.”

    Actually, it is not surprising the ScienceDebate did not materialize. There’s a better way forward. Average citizens are untrained in the sciences, and they are NOT clamoring to be engaged in science. A small number of so-called “citizen scientists” are not enough to improve dismal science literacy rates.

    Something not yet developed is needed to draw the broader public into rational, logical discussions – that they recognize as relevant to their own existence. The cost of gasoline and overall energy costs will start conversations that can evolve with help from ‘citizen scientists’. In a similar way, the absurd logic about cholesterol is about to ‘crash’ from its illogical position. Again, ‘citizen scientists’ can help the public start conversations that will evolve into better understanding of how to PREVENT the $400 billion losses to heart disease – – that is NOT caused by cholesterol.

    Once the public really wants to know something, they will listen to reason. THEN, teaching can help learning occur!

  • Bill Lands

    You have wisdom in recognizing that the Science Debate 2008 failed because it did not try hard enough to include the public. This judgment, from the journal Nature, is on target: “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.”

    Actually, it is not surprising the ScienceDebate did not materialize. There’s a better way forward. Average citizens are untrained in the sciences, and they are NOT clamoring to be engaged in science. A small number of so-called “citizen scientists” are not enough to improve dismal science literacy rates.

    Something not yet developed is needed to draw the broader public into rational, logical discussions – that they recognize as relevant to their own existence. The cost of gasoline and overall energy costs will start conversations that can evolve with help from ‘citizen scientists’. In a similar way, the absurd logic about cholesterol is about to ‘crash’ from its illogical position. Again, ‘citizen scientists’ can help the public start conversations that will evolve into better understanding of how to PREVENT the $400 billion losses to heart disease – – that is NOT caused by cholesterol.

    Once the public really wants to know something, they will listen to reason. THEN, teaching can help learning occur!

  • Thanks, Bill! Great points. Let’s start now. In layman’s terms, can you tell us more about the real culprits responsible for the $400 billion losses to heart disease and how bad information about cholesterol might have taken us down the wrong path? (How did cholesterol get to play such a big role in the media?) Thanks again, Bill.

  • Thanks, Bill! Great points. Let’s start now. In layman’s terms, can you tell us more about the real culprits responsible for the $400 billion losses to heart disease and how bad information about cholesterol might have taken us down the wrong path? (How did cholesterol get to play such a big role in the media?) Thanks again, Bill.