Despite the inclusion of such illustrious science journalists, however, the press has hardly covered the petition in the news pages. Instead, it has been left to some of the signatories to promote the cause on opinion pages. Varying renditions of the argument for a science debate have appeared in the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, New Scientist, and Salon. For the most part, reporters have avoided this story. Lawrence Krauss, an astrophysicist and Case Western University and Shawn Lawrence Otto, a screenwriter, (both steering committee members) have written most of the op-eds.


“It hadn’t occurred to me that any of the press figures involved in the science debate petition might be strategic and an attempt to get more leverage,” Rennie wrote in a an email, responding to an inquiry from CJR. “I suppose that’s possible, but at the risk of sounding naive, my own motives and those of the other journalists and writers involved in the drive seem disconnected from any particular journalistic ambitions to pry more information from the candidates. We want to do it because we sincerely think it would be good for the sake of the country for the voters to hear the candidates hash out their positions on matters of science and technology policy.”


There have been a few example of news coverage. The most thorough report came from Wired in early December, just days after the petition was released online. Stressing the difficult, if not impossible, goal of convincing the candidates to engage in such a debate, Sarah Lai Stirland called the petition a “quixotic, last-minute effort” in her lead, although farther down in the piece she acknowledges the increasingly robust list of signatories. John Tierney and Cornelia Dean wrote short posts about the petition on two New York Times blogs, but they probably didn’t get a lot of attention because they were published on Christmas eve and Christmas day, respectively. MSNBC.com’s Alan Boyle also gave it a nod in his own recent round up of the candidates’ scientific track records: “A debate focusing on those issues is so needed … and so unlikely to happen,” he wrote. Three days after the Iowa caucuses, Elizabeth Sullivan wrote a long and thoughtful column for the The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Despite the petition, she wrote, “the nitty-gritty of science policy and technological change that could impact Americans decades from now continues to take a back seat on the campaign trail.”


Finally, last week, Ira Flatow conducted an extensive interview with Shawn Otto, the screenwriter who authored a number of the newspaper op-eds, on NPR’s Science Friday. (Flatow was careful to disclose that he, too, signed the petition.) “The funny thing is, most of the people organizing this are not scientists.” Otto told him. “Because science and technology lie and the center of almost every major policy issue that we’re facing, we feel it deserves a debate of its own, especially since many of the candidates haven’t been able to articulate any kind of position about science policy.”


Otto also told Flatow that the group had fixed neither a date nor a venue for the debate, though it is currently talking with a number of potential sponsors and contributors, including the National Academy of Sciences, which may, he said, serve as host at its Washington, D.C. headquarters. The group does not plan to approach the candidates with the petition until after Super Tuesday (February 5), when twenty-four states will hold their primaries.

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