“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.
This is not the first time in this campaign that somebody has tried to get all the presidential candidates’ together to discuss climate. In mid-November, Grist magazine and the League of Conservation Voters helped organize a presidential forum on global warming and energy. It was not a debate, however; candidates each had ten minutes to make a statement and then took questions from moderators and the audience. The event drew a bit of coverage, but only Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Dennis Kucinich participated (though all candidates from both parties were invited) and it was not televised. Oddly enough, the League of Conservation Voters justified the forum by saying that the press had not thoroughly pressed candidates on climate and energy issues, even though candidates themselves (the Democrats at least) seemed to be looking for opportunities to bring them up. The league was speaking specifically about television reporters, however, so its thesis does not contradict the argument that the print press has been impeded by a lack of access to the candidates.
Many people, petition signatories and otherwise, clearly think that a science debate is a long shot. Though the press has not always applied itself in as much as it could have in covering the intersection of politics and science, there have been a number of concerted efforts to make the candidates say more, and they met silence. Even thousands of journalists, scientists, academics, politicians, and businesspeople calling in unison for more answers might not be enough.