Scientists and Engineers for America
have put up seven questions
that they suggest asking Congressional candidates (see their website for the full questions; the following is abridged):
1. What policies would you support to ensure that America remains the world leader in innovation?
2. What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change—a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, and research? Are there other policies you would support?
3. What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?
4. What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century?
5. What policies would you support to meet demand for water resources?
6. Given that the next Congress will likely face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in basic research in upcoming budgets?
7. How do you see science, research, and technology contributing to improved health and quality of life?
Most of these questions are good ones, and each of these subject areas is something your Congressional representative should have a thought-out answer for. It is glaringly obvious though, that these questions scrupulously avoid areas of science that have been caught up in the culture wars, like stem cell research and evolution vs. intelligent design.
While I appreciate the non-partisan attempt to incorporate science into our election-year discussions, I think Congressional candidates should be questioned about some of these cultural issues, and especially about their views on political manipulation of science. The last 6-7 years have seen some low-points, such as: Congressional pressure on the CDC to post misinformation about abortion and breast cancer
; politically motivated manipulation of NASA's climate change scientists by press officers
; misrepresentation of the number of embryonic stem cell lines available for research, Bill Frist's long-distance video diagnosis of Terri Schiavo, and his refusal to deny that HIV is spread by sweat or tears
; and remarks by high-profile politicians that the teaching of evolution needs to balanced with the teaching of intelligent design.
Science should be discussed in this election, but we shouldn't pretend that the political distortion of science for partisan ends doesn't exist. When I'm considering Congressional candidates, I don't just want to vote for someone who has well-thought out answers to America's wonky science policy issues - I want to be sure that I'm voting for someone who doesn't think that scientific reality can be wished away by spin and partisan thinking. If we elect leaders who think that they can will away scientific facts, the other seven questions become meaningless.
We need to add another question to the list for Congressional candidates:
What role should the scientific method play in our government's policy decisions?