The quest for a scientific tête-à-tête between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney continues.

On Thursday, 15 top science and engineering organizations, from the American Organization for the Advancement of Science to the Union of Concerned Scientists, released a list of 14 questions that they would like the presidential candidates to answer, preferably in a televised debate.

The group was organized by the nonprofit science advocacy organization ScienceDebate.org, which launched during the 2008 race in order to press Obama and his then challenger into a parley about scientific matters of national significance. Although over 38,000 scientists, politicians, journalists, and other supporters signed the call, the debate didn’t happen, but Obama and US Sen. John McCain did provide written responses, with a useful amount of detail, to that year’s list of 14 questions.

This year’s list—again crafted from suggestions from thousands of scientists, engineers, and others—hasn’t changed much. Questions about: the role of science and technology in innovation and the economy, climate change, energy, education, pandemics and biodiversity, ocean health, water, space, public health, and federal support for basic research remain basically the same as the last go-round. Questions about critical natural resources, the Internet, and food safety replaced ones about national security, genetics research, and stem cells. And a question about scientific integrity was reworked into a question about science in public policy.

“I don’t think the shift reflects changing priorities among scientists as much as it reflects changing views of which areas of focus are most important for the wellbeing of the nation,” Shawn Lawrence Otto, an author and filmmaker as well as co-founder and CEO of ScienceDebate.org, said of the new question topics.

The questions are not listed in order of importance, with exception of the first three—innovation and the economy, climate change, and research support—Otto added. “The economy is top of mind, and climate change is existential in some ways, with broad economic, environmental, and foreign policy implication,” he said. “Research is the driver of the future.”

Scientific American signed on as ScienceDebate.org’s media partner and will run the full answers to the candidates’ questions on its website as soon as they are available, according to editor in chief Mariette DiChristina (Otto had to “pester the campaigns constantly” in 2008, he said). The November issue of the magazine will then feature a companion story about the underlying issues and, if deadlines allow, a summary of the answers with a grade on each.

In a blog post explaining Scientific American’s decision to join the push for a science debate, senior editor Christine Gorman wrote:

If you look beyond the made-up controversies that seem to dominate political discussion these days to the real issues—the real challenges, threats and opportunities that the U.S. faces today, tomorrow and for the rest of the century—you’ll find that most of them require a better grasp of some key scientific question or research field.

… as informed citizens, we need to know how the presidential candidates expect to address the basic scientific issues that are so vital to our country’s and our planet’s future—and that their policies will be based on sound science.

Unlike in 2008, however, ScienceDebate.org is looking beyond the White House, and picked out a subset of eight questions for Congress as well. Scientific American will contact majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate, as well as the chairs and ranking members of key committees that have a responsibility in areas like energy, climate, water, the Internet, and commerce to seek answers.

“We are looking to build enthusiasm for the idea that sound science should be just as much a factor when considering who to vote for or how to govern as sound economic, foreign affairs or educational policy,” Gorman said.

Beyond SciAm’s partnership with ScienceDebate.org, the push for candidates to discuss their science stances has received limited media attention. NBCNews.com, NPR’s Science Friday, and Audubon Magazine have all interviewed Otto in recent months. And USA Today’s Dan Vergano wrote a short blog post about a nationwide poll in April organized by ScienceDebate.org, which found that 85 percent of respondents wanted the candidates to debate science-related issues “such as healthcare, climate change, energy, education, innovation and the economy.”

In general, however, Otto thinks the news media has not done enough to press the candidates to explain their positions on important scientific issues, citing cutbacks in science reporting, understaffed newsrooms under deadline pressure, and a trend toward repackaging canned content.

“Then there’s the presumption by many in the media that the public isn’t interested,” Otto added. “Our polling shows this is absolutely false. This is likely selection bias by reporters, editors, and news directors, many of whose last science class was likely high school chemistry, and who likely avoided science in college. They often presume the public shares their views. But in a science-driven global society and economy, the media is the missing link in helping the people remain well informed about these critical issues that affect our lives.”

Otto’s words should be a reminder to journalists nationwide. Even if ScienceDebate.org’s dream comes true, and the candidates go head-to-head over science and engineering on national TV, reporters everywhere need to make these issues part of their daily coverage of the presidential and Congressional campaigns.

 

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.