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Why We Need a Presidential Debate on Science

A new poll says that 85 percent of Americans want our presidential candidates to debate science issues. I found this statistic on the website of a somewhat botched initiative, Sciencedebate 2008, which, despite its catchy title, has not had much luck convincing the candidates to clearly and contemporaneously voice their views on what should be near and dear to the hearts of most MIT students: science.

I must say, I’m pretty disappointed. It’s always fun to point and laugh at candidates who don’t realize that there is a difference between adult and embryonic stem cells. And by point and laugh, I really mean gawk, and then go back to the lab bench to cry. Alone. With my 3T3 cells.

So do we really not care that none of the candidates are even bothering to mention their scientific policies? Or are we just not bothering to talk about it because we have too much else to do?

Perhaps I am a bit too harsh. But aren’t MIT students and faculty the ones who would be most affected by any drastic science policy changes? If the new Congress decides to pass legislation that further limits our research capacity, won’t we be the ones out of a job? Won’t we be the ones who are left at the dock as Korea, Japan, China, France, Germany, England, and everyone else buy their one-way passes to scientific progress?

I will, of course, admit that I am biased. I am, after all, born and raised in the Washington, DC area, and I spent my summer writing for a progressive science policy publication called Science Progress. Perhaps I care more than most about politics and about how that affects America’s global competitiveness, especially in scientific research.

But I’m not going to stop there. I’ve heard way too many MIT students gripe about how our president can’t properly pronounce “nuclear” to save his soul. I want to grab every one of you that has ever complained about that by the shoulders, shake you, and scream, “This is why we need scientists on Capitol Hill, you moron!”

Forget, for one moment, how important that problem set is, or how much you want your research to be published. Let’s not immerse ourselves so deeply in our work that we fail to notice what is happening around us. Because everyday citizens listen to politicians and glean their world views from them, and politicians talk about what they think everyday citizens want to hear. (Like how hot or how stark raving mad Sarah Palin is.)

Now that I finally have your attention, do you still wonder why we’re not hearing anything about science? We’re the ones who are supposed to care. We are supposed to be the ones demanding answers from these candidates. But right now, we, as an institution of brilliant students and potential world leaders, are just ignoring those political exchanges completely. And so they’re ignoring us.

If we continue to just sit around and watch politicians throw scientific jargon around like they know what they’re talking about, then what they say will continue to be scientific truth as far as the rest of this country is concerned. If we live in a scientific bubble forever, only other scientists will care about us. And you thought having a president who mispronounces “nuclear” was sad.

Apparently, thousands of scientists around the nation agree with me, because they banded together to launch an initiative to further a true debate on the important scientific issues of our time — Sciencedebate 2008.

What scientists around the nation want, and aren’t getting, is a scientific debate, led by scientists, for scientists. We want serious questions asked, because we’ll know how to pick out the bullshit from the actual policy.

If there’s anything an MIT student is good at, it’s knowing when someone else is wrong. So we want our questions actually addressed, like whether or not the Oval Office is going to continue to let the NIH, NSF, and everyone else flounder due to lack of funding.

Because it means a lot to me, and to everyone out there who is ever planning on writing a grant proposal, it should mean a lot to you too.

Jennifer Nelson is a member of the Class of 2009.