EDITORIAL: Bridging Science and Politics

Last week’s presidential debate was an opportunity for the candidates to demonstrate familiarity, expertise and opinions on myriad issues facing the United States. The candidates shared their beliefs, or lack thereof, on climate change, cybersecurity and nuclear weaponry. Yet these issues were only covered briefly and with very little depth or scientific nuance. More often than not, the candidates’ positions were manipulated into political jabs rather than delivered as serious arguments backed up by evidence.

In 2016, citizens should not accept that the two major candidates for president fail to demonstrate scientific literacy and understanding of urgent issues. In a 2015 poll from the organization ScienceDebate.org, an organization lobbying for increased scientific literacy in public politics, 87 percent of citizens said it was important for presidential and congressional candidates to have a basic understanding of the science behind public policy issues. Even with such definitive public opinion, the issue of scientific literacy has plagued this election for over a year.

Climate change, an increasingly urgent issue with devastating and costly repercussions for America and the globe, was barely covered at the debate, and only in the context of one candidate’s lying about denying the issue’s existence. The moderator, Lester Holt, did not follow up on the issue, and no questions were asked about policies to combat rising sea levels or greenhouse gas emissions. Candidates must be able to address the foundations of policies and the scientific origins of issues that will challenge our nation. In order to force an embrace of facts and robust scientific literacy, candidates should participate in a scientific policy debate.

This may seem like a lofty goal – one that could take years – yet with the growing impact of science on Americans’ day-to-day lives, discourse needs to shift for the betterment of all.

On Oct. 19, Fox News host Chris Wallace has said he would moderate the third presidential debate in a format similar to the first debate on Sept. 26.  Wallace has an opportunity to pressure candidates to divulge their specific policy plans on scientific issues such as climate change and renewable energy rather than skirting around the issues.

In any debate on scientific issues, the candidates should display a key understanding of policy topics and problems ranging from security to environmental regulation. Cybersecurity has already made rounds during this election, but neither candidate has been pressed for details. In an era of Russian hackers, and groups like Anonymous and WikiLeaks, the future president has more responsibility than ever to understand the modern data landscape.

Yet this cycle, we have seen one candidate struggle with formatting a secure server and the other suggesting that politicians simply “see Bill Gates” about “closing that Internet up” to prevent possible radicalization during a speech in South Carolina last year. Such misunderstanding of technology is unacceptable. These issues are not scientific intricacies, but baseline expectations for our policy makers.

Drone and automated technology, too, fall under the auspices of modern infrastructure. Self-driving cars and Amazon drones are just around the mass-market corner, and trade will never be the same. Millions of truck drivers may be put out of work if 18-wheelers were to be automated, with approximately 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States. A president needs to understand the implications of rolling out the red carpet for new technologies while considering  the economic outcomes.

Other issues any science-based presidential debate ought to include are scientific programs in public education, the rise of antibiotic super bacteria, HIV/AIDS rates in America and abroad, the rise of mosquito-borne illnesses due to warming climates, global droughts fomenting conflict, water safety and animal endangerment.

Our future leaders should not only strive to make our country a better place, but they should also display an aptitude and understanding of the science behind the issues dominating the 21st century. If we do not demand such literacy from current and future candidates, whether they are  presidents, congressmen or mayors, then our society stands to lose both from their possible incompetence as well as our own complacency in the process.

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