In November, 2007, a small group of six citizens - two screenwriters, a physicist, a marine biologist, a philosopher and a science journalist - began working to restore science and innovation to America’s political dialogue. They called themselves Science Debate 2008, and they called for a presidential debate on science. The call tapped a wellspring of concern over the state of American science.
Within weeks, more than 38,000 scientists, engineers, and other concerned Americans signed on, including nearly every major American science organization, dozens of Nobel laureates, elected officials and business leaders, and the presidents of over 100 major American universities. See who here. The effort grew into the largest political initiative in the history of science, representing over 125 million people. The signers submitted thousands of questions they wanted the candidates for President to answer about science and the future of America.
The candidates refused. The Science Debate team secured cosponsors in the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Council on Competitiveness. The secured bipartisan congressional cochairs. The made a deal with NOVA and NOW on PBS to broadcast the debate, and secured a venue. But the candidates instead opted to debate their religious faith in two nationally televised "faith forums."
The American science and engineering community was stunned. These issues lie at the center of most of the major unresolved policy challenges facing the country, and yet the candidates refused to debate them. The team went to work with other leading science organizations to cull the submitted questions into "The Top 14 Science Questions Facing America," and teamed with Research!America to do a national poll to show the candidates that 85% of the American public thought that debating these topics was important.
This time, the candidates responded. They assembled teams of science advisers to help them answer the questions, which helped inform their strategic thinking. The inauguration of Barack Obama marked the first time a president has gone into office with a fully formed science policy and a sense of how it fits into his overall strategic agenda. In a day and age when science affects every aspect of our lives and lies at the center of the causes and solutions of many of our most intractable public policy challenges, this was an important new development.