ScienceDebate 2008

Organizers of ScienceDebate 2008 are “disappointed” but “not surprised” that the three main US presidential candidates have ignored invitations to participate in a public debate on science that was scheduled to take place today.

Friday 2 May was one of three possible dates this month that had been put forward to the candidates after the original date — 18 April — had to be cancelled, also because of a poor response.

John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, declined the invitation for a debate at any time in early May. Hillary Clinton, one of the two remaining Democratic candidates, told the organizers that the invitation had gone to her “scheduling” department, while Barack Obama, the other Democratic candidate, acknowledged receipt of the invitation but did not confirm whether he would attend.

“I believe the candidates have left it so late that it is now virtually impossible that the debate will happen,” Matthew Chapman, president of ScienceDebate, told physicsworld.com. “For the candidates to show such disdain of the academic, science and technology community should be a matter of concern for every voter in [the US].”

Although McCain is the only candidate to have formally rejected the two remaining dates — 9 May and 16 May — it seems unlikely that either Clinton or Obama will accept at this late stage. The organizers are now pinning their hopes on new invitations that will be sent out shortly. “We are making progress in bringing this to the attention of voters, and if everyone continues to keep the pressure up, ultimately the candidates will have to respond,” says Chapman.

Growing support

ScienceDebate 2008 was formed towards the end of last year by a group of six people who wanted science policy to be debated by the presidential candidates in the run up to the November election. Since then the organizers have gathered the signatures of some 37,000 supporters including university presidents, the representatives of scientific institutions and Nobel laureates.

McCain has no reason to appear on stage with the Democrats, and the focus of the Democratic debates has devolved into issues of personality and gossip Lawrence Krauss, co-organizer, ScienceDebate 2008

After the original date in April was rejected, several signatories — including the Nobel laureates David Gross, John Mather, David Politzer and Leon Lederman — sent an independent letter urging the candidates to respond to the new May invitations. But this too appears to have gone unheeded.

Lawrence Krauss, co-organizer of Science Debate, says that resounding “gossip and innuendo” between the Clinton and Obama campaigns is to blame for the lack of interest in a serious public debate on science. “At this point McCain has no real reason to appear on stage with the Democrats, and the focus of the Democratic debates has devolved into issues of personality and gossip.”

Krauss now believes it is more likely that the debate will happen after the primaries are over in June. “I am only hoping that after the primary season ends that real issues may come to the fore, but this will depend in part on the media actually focusing in on these issues,” he says, adding: “We are in this for the long haul, and are hoping to set up an infrastructure that will impact not just upon this election but future elections.”