A Televised Presidential Debate, About Science?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

Republican presidential candidates from left, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., prepare for a Republican presidential debate in Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011.

Science issues aren’t usually hot topics for presidential candidates, whose rhetoric tends to revolve more around jobs and the economy than space exploration and funding for energy research. But one organization wants to change that, and is pushing for 2016 presidential candidates to agree to a full debate on science issues, including climate change.

ScienceDebate, a group that started during the 2008 election, is working with campaigns and media outlets to try to convince them to air a general election debate on science issues. Sheril Kirshenbaum, executive director of the group, told ThinkProgress that she helped start the group in 2008 because she and her fellow co-founders weren’t hearing enough talk about science issues — including energy, climate change, health, and space exploration — between Barack Obama and John McCain.

The group didn’t succeed in getting a debate over science issues on TV — Kirshenbaum said both candidates originally agreed to the debate but then backed out — but it did get Obama and McCain to provide written responses on 14 science-related questions.The 2012 campaign was similar — candidates didn’t engage in a televised science debate, but they did answer questions about science that ScienceDebate sent them. In both cases, the questions were selected after whittling down thousands of submissions from the public.

Kirshenbaum is hopeful that this election, there will be a televised debate. She said the organization has gotten an earlier start this year than in previous elections, and has been talking with media outlets and campaigns to gauge interest. Her team is trying to get the word out to the public that the group exists, in order to garner support from people who are interested in seeing more science in political campaigns. They’re also soliciting question suggestions for a debate from the public and gathering signatures for a petition calling for a science debate.

Already, the fact that multiple candidates have made statements on one particular science issue — climate change — is good news, she said, regardless if the statements have been supportive of the science or dismissive of it. Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Rick Santorum have all made comments about climate change in recent months, though they haven’t been supportive of action on the issue.

Kirshenbaum said that ScienceDebate doesn’t take sides on candidates’ views on climate change and other issues. Regardless of what they say about science, she said, “we just feel like their policies and views need to be out for all of us to decide on.”

“Our role from the beginning…is not to rank them or rate them but simply provide a means for voters to know what policies would look like,” she said. “It’s not about quizzing them; it’s about finding out what their science policy would be.”

Kirshenbaum did single out democratic candidate Hillary Clinton — whose campaign director John Podesta* tweeted in April that addressing climate change would be at the top of Clinton’s agenda — as someone who could influence the campaign’s treatment of climate change.

“The fact that she’s making this such a big issue means that no matter what happens next, every candidate will have to talk about it,” Kirshenbaum said. She also said that she thinks there’s been a cultural shift in how the public views science in recent years, with shows like Cosmos and Breaking Bad bringing science to a general audience.

“It might not always be the most accurate portrayal, but I think there’s more recognition that this stuff is pretty important,” she said.

Debates over science have also played out heavily in Congress over the last few years. Earlier this year, Ted Cruz (R-TX) said he thought NASA should spend less time studying planet earth and more time finding ways to go out into space. And a bill introduced this year sought to cut federal research in geoscience and social science.

Too often, these sorts of fights are treated as special interests, Kirshenbaum said. Her group is trying to get candidates — and the media — to realize that the public does want to hear about what candidates think about scientific issues. In polling commissioned by ScienceDebate in 2012, more than half of Americans agreed that public policy should be based on the “best available science” instead of on personal opinions, and according to a 2008 poll, 85 percent want to see a debate on science.

Things like clean water, energy, healthy food, and other science-related issues are all things that affect everyone, Kirshenbaum said.

“People talk about these issues as if they’re just science issues and they’re really just human challenges,” she said, “No matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, they’re going to affect you and your family.”

*Disclosure: John Podesta founded the Center For American Progress Action Fund, which is the parent organization of ThinkProgress.