Candidates Decline Science Debate

Proxies seem to be the only option

One thing about the scientists, academics, journalists, politicians, and business leaders pushing for a presidential debate about science - you can’t say they haven’t tried. There’s been a lot of chatter about the possibility of such an event since early December, when organizers launched a petition encouraging the candidates to take part. It always seemed like a long shot, but unfortunately, prospects turned even grimmer yesterday.

Science writer Cornelia Dean has a short item in The New York Times’s political blog, The Caucus, announcing that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have declined an invitation to debate science in Philadelphia next week, just days before Pennsylvania April 22 primary. Organizers had been going about planning the event for months in a build-it-and-they’ll-come bid to attract the candidates. The effort had been quite serious. In addition to Dean, two of the Times’s other veteran science writers, Andrew Revkin and John Tierney, had discussed the debate on their blogs, stirring up more expectation and speculation; coverage by other media outlets has also been fairly widespread.

Despite the demise of Philadelphia event, there is, according to Dean, some hope that all is not lost. The organizers of ScienceDebate2008 now hope to set up an alternate debate in Oregon before that state’s May 20 primary. It is not entirely easy to ignore the call - the ranks of prominent individuals pushing for the debate have swelled to include a diverse of array of the country’s leadership in the public, private, and academic sectors. As illustrious as this group may be, however, it’s still a relatively small voting bloc; the group has certainly grabbed the candidates attention, but rather than debate, they appear satisfied by sending proxies instead.

That is what happened at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February, where The New York Times’s Claudia Dreifus moderated a pseudo-debate between Clinton and Obama representatives. That drew some media coverage at the time, but most reporters and columnists simply bemoaned the lack of substance in the debate. This Friday, the Society of Environmental Journalists (along with co-sponsors National Geographic and The Environmental Law Institute) is giving it another shot. In group is hosting an event called “Political Climate: Environment, Energy & the 2008 Election,” in Washington, D.C. where representatives from the Clinton, Obama and John McCain campaigns will shoot the issues in forum moderated by journalists from National Journal and National Public Radio (NPR). Though it is still preferable to have the candidates themselves, this event promises to be more engaging than the rather flaccid discussion that took place at AAAS; not only is the McCain going to be present, but all the candidates’ proxies have more experience this time around. Will the media hear anything new? One can only hope.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.