Restore Public Faith in Science

Miller-McCune's experts offer solutions to problems that were under-discussed during the presidential campaign.
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Before the tumbling economy sucked the air out of other issues in the 2008 presidential campaign, there was laudable effort to bring attention to a largely overlooked but critical policy issue: the decline of American science funding and education. This focus on science policy was led by a broad coalition of scientific, political, academic and other leaders who sought a national presidential science debate. Not surprisingly, the candidates demurred from this offer, possibly fearing that they would come across as not sufficiently informed on the wide variety of pressing science topics that would come up in the conversation (although both candidates finally submitted their answers to a set of 14 questions developed by the Science Debate 2008 team last fall).

Nonetheless, the problems surrounding science policy must be addressed quickly by the Obama administration. As I see it, the problem is that the public view of science has diminished precipitously during the Bush administration, both with regard to scientific information and the process of scientific research. This problem has been fed by an administration that fomented an unabashed skepticism about the value of science, with a resulting — and very unfortunate — entangling of science with politics.

Fortunately, unlike many of the problems facing the next president, this one can be solved relatively quickly and with relatively little money. The answer to this problem, first and foremost, is a combination of leadership and inspiration. The next president must clearly proclaim to the American public that scientific research is not only an honorable pursuit but also one that is critically important to the future of this nation. This can be accomplished through three primary activities. First, science education must be significantly improved, from kindergarten through college, regardless of which school a child attends. In the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act, our children and the nation's next leaders are learning how to be better test-takers, rather than how to analyze information and think critically. The next president must advocate strong science curricula that hone critical-thinking skills.

Second, President Obama must commit himself to elevating federal funding of non-defense scientific research and development. While the Department of Defense has enjoyed an increase of nearly 60 percent in federal research and development funding since 2000, total non-defense R&D has seen less than half of that increase (in constant dollars, based on historical budget data compiled by the American Association for the Advancement of Science). Given the global imperative to develop feasible alternatives to fossil-fuel-based energy systems, the U.S. has an opportunity to regain its status as a global leader in science and technology. It is the responsibility of the next president to galvanize the American public (and thereby Congress) around this goal.

This leads to the third presidential activity that will restore America's respect for science: a call for improved communication of scientific information. In order to gain support for increased science funding in an era of economic turmoil, American taxpayers must understand how they will benefit from this new budgetary focus. In the past eight years, agency and academic efforts to improve science communication have been at odds with Bush administration attempts to stifle the distribution of scientific information, especially regarding climate change. These executive-imposed limitations on the communication of science were often combined with political rhetoric that minimized the contributions of scientists and the scientific endeavor generally. Obama must instruct his cabinet and the heads of appropriate agencies to place a paramount importance upon the free and open distribution of government-funded science.

We are in desperate need of a president who will return the country to a position of global leadership in scientific research, who will devote the resources necessary to prepare our children to take over that position of leadership, and who will remind American citizens of our proud history of innovation through strong science education. It's a tall order, but one that must be served.

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