August 31, 2016

Will the 2016 Presidential Candidates Debate Science and Technology Policy?

In an effort to import more scientifically-based policy issues into the 2016 election,, a coalition of science-based and academic organizations, has issued a challenge to the Presidential candidates regarding their views on policies impacting the science sector (broadly construed). is calling for a Presidential debate focused on science and technology issues, with an online petition in support of such an event posted on their site. This effort was also conducted in earlier Presidential elections (see 2012 initiative); to date, there have been no such debates. The official Presidential debates are managed by a somewhat ad hoc organization, the Commission on Presidential Debates. The official debates this election cycle do not have subject matter limits. has also posted a list of 20 questions, culled from submissions by the participating organizations, for the candidates (Clinton, Trump, Johnson, Stein), who are invited to submit answers. There are foundational questions that impact the science sector generally, related to innovation, research funding, education, immigration and regulations. The most prominent life science-related questions are the following: 
Biodiversity: Biological diversity provides food, fiber, medicines, clean water and many other products and services on which we depend every day. Scientists are finding that the variety and variability of life is diminishing at an alarming rate as a result of human activity. What steps will you take to protect biological diversity?
Food: Agriculture involves a complex balance of land and energy use, worker health and safety, water use and quality, and access to healthy and affordable food, all of which have inputs of objective knowledge from science. How would you manage the U.S. agricultural enterprise to our highest benefit in the most sustainable way?
Public Health: Public health efforts like smoking cessation, drunk driving laws, vaccination, and water fluoridation have improved health and productivity and save millions of lives. How would you improve federal research and our public health system to better protect Americans from emerging diseases and other public health threats, such as antibiotic resistant superbugs?
Vaccinations: Public health officials warn that we need to take more steps to prevent international epidemics from viruses such as Ebola and Zika. Meanwhile, measles is resurgent due to decreasing vaccination rates. How will your administration support vaccine science?
There are several questions related to mental health issues, and the epidemic of opioid abuse. The rest of the list poses specific questions related to energy, environment, space, and the Internet. 

It is likely that the campaigns will respond to the written questions. Probably the most conspicuous omission (relative to the volume of recent debate and controversy in the life science community) is the emerging issue of the management and uses of gene-editing technologies (see earlier posts here and here). Additionally, there is no explicit acknowledgment of dual-use research in the life sciences (see earlier posts here and here). Nonetheless, the organization does elevate the visibility of science-related policies as central aspects of 21st century governance, and implicitly suggests that any credible candidate in 2016 needs to exhibit some degree of scientific literacy.