Voters Petition for Presidential Science Debate Wondering where your candidate stands on issues such as the funding of stem cell research or addressing climate change? A group of voters has started a petition calling for a science debate among the 2008 presidential hopefuls. What questions would you ask?
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Voters Petition for Presidential Science Debate

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Voters Petition for Presidential Science Debate

Voters Petition for Presidential Science Debate

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We are in the thick of a presidential campaign and we heard lots of lots of different opinions from candidates: their views on the war in Iraq, their foreign policy experience, what they think what we should do about illegal immigration - but what about their views on science and technology? Where do the candidates stand on issues such as stem cell funding, space travel, fresh water shortages, genomics research, the oceans, research funding being cut-off, keeping up with research that is happening around the world on and on and on, more issues that are in the news every week and issues that affect the future of the United States.

Well, to try and get the candidates on record about science and technology issues, there's a grassroots movement calling for a presidential science debate. Full disclosure, I am a supporter of that effort.

And joining me now to talk more about the push forward debate is my guest Shawn Lawrence Otto, one of the prime organizers of Science Debate 2008. He's a political strategist, a writer and director, who wrote and co-produced the Academy Award nominated, "House of Sand and Fog." His screenplay, "Hubble," about astronomer Edwin Hubble, won the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Award for Best Science Screenplay. He joins us by phone.

Thanks for talking with us.

Mr. SHAWN LAWRENCE OTTO (Writer/Director, "House of Sand & Fog"; Organizer, Science Debate 2008): Hey, happy to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: Do you actually have plans for the debate yet? Is there one set up?

Mr. OTTO: There is not one set up yet. And we haven't approached the candidates yet. We're still in the phase of building our support and we've begun negotiating with a number of different major institutions about venue locations and time and co-sponsorship. And I hope that we'll have an announcement on that in the next week or two.

FLATOW: Hmm. On your Web site,, you have a long list of prominent scientists who have backed this idea.

Mr. OTTO: We do. You know, the funny thing is is most of the people organizing this are not scientists. I'm not a scientist as people heard from my bio there at the beginning. We're mostly ordinary citizens who are just very concerned about the future of our country and the kind of investment we're making and our economic security. And we decided to try and do something about it. So we started talking to people that we know, reaching out to our contact, and the response was really overwhelming.

FLATOW: Hmm. And so you're sort of gathering supporters as you go along here?

Mr. OTTO: Yes. Yeah. The momentum is terrific. Every day, we add, you know, hundreds of more supporters and lots of very well-connected people. We're moving closer and closer to be able to put something together. Matthew Chapman, one of our organizers, and I just came back from Washington, D.C. on Wednesday for a round of meetings with potential cosponsors and we're very hopeful.

FLATOW: Who do you have to get to agree to this?

Mr. OTTO: The candidates, the campaigns.

FLATOW: Just that, there's no central debate organization or anything like that?

Mr. OTTO: Well, there is a central debate organization after the endorsing conventions, which will happen in late August and early September. At that point, when we're down to two major candidates, there is something called the Commission on Presidential Debates. And they, you know, have already set their three presidential debates and they have set their venues. So there's not much opportunity there except for individual questions submitted by debate attendees. This is something that is so important because science and technology lie at the center of almost every major policy issue that we're facing that we feel that it deserves a debate of its own, especially, since, many of the candidates have not been able to articulate any kind of position about science policy.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And is science policy really at the center of what you'd like to talk about?

Mr. OTTO: Well, it comes down to our future. You know, we've got a lot of issues that have to do with our economic security. There's a report that the National Academy of Science put out last year called "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." And the business roundtable put out one - a couple of years before that that was quite similar talking about how America is slipping behind with the spread of high-tech knowledge and science around the world and cheap labor around the world. We are losing our ability to compete. And, really, the only way to be able to continue to compete and to keep our economic competitiveness is to innovate.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. OTTO: And we can't innovate unless we are making the investment, unless the president is initiating that and making it a national priority.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. OTTO: These things don't happen by polling, you know. The Prius wasn't invented by polling and we didn't get to the moon by polling. We need leaders that take a stand for the future. We're not going to tackle global warming and we're not going to tackle clean energy without that kind of leadership. So we want to see where these candidates really stand in that big visionary sense.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And would this be a radio debate, an online debate, a TV debate. What kind of debate?

Mr. OTTO: Oh, we're hoping that it's going to be a television debate.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number, if you'd like to talk with Shawn Lawrence Otto about this debate.

We do hear the candidates every now and then talk about science, but it's mostly in the same kind of issues we've heard. You know, evolution, maybe a little bit of stem cell research, but not of really all the other kinds of scientific issues.

Mr. OTTO: Right. And those are kind of the hot-button issues that have been defined by various party operatives to divide voters into blocks that will get their passionate support and get them riled up.

From our perspective, though, we'd rather elevate the debate and we think that this is a nonpartisan issue. We've got Democrat and Republican supporters prominently on both sides. You know, and other people say, well, you know, you - it takes a lot of money and we don't have that kind of money and how can you do that. You know, the Democratic-controlled Congress just cut the president's budget request for science. And we don't know, you know, where we're going to go in the future, but we do now that this kind of investment pays off big time.

I can give you one little example, you know. There's a guy here in my home state of Minnesota named E.W. Davis that worked at the University of Minnesota. Probably over about 40 years, he must have cost the university maybe - let's say, $100,000 a year. Well, that guy with an enormous investment at the time in the '30s and '40s, he figured out to how make taconite economically viable in the whole northern economy of Minnesota. And still to this day, two-thirds of all the steel used in American cars and ships and homes and bridges, comes from taconite.


Mr. OTTO: So these kinds of Blue Sky Investments can pay off big time if we have the vision and fortitude to go forward.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Susan(ph) at - in Georgetown University. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

SUSAN (Caller): Hi. This is Susan - oh, I'm actually at George Washington University. But I'm one of the signers…

FLATOW: I'll never make that mistake again.

SUSAN: …of the online petition to - calling for this debate because I think it's so important. And I think both the visionary ideas that are being talked about here - getting the candidates to talk about that and put it on record -are important. As well as sort of the nuts and bolts that have to be asked about, questions about how to restore the - both the morale and the scientific integrity within the agencies and how do you put into place policies that really are good government policies and about how do we have a government that functions the way we want it to based on good information and good evidence. And I hope that this kind of debate will really move that forward.

I think - I'd also be very interested in hearing more about sort of how this is going to happen and where we're going to be, how we move it forward. Because I know organizations like Scientists and Engineers for America and the group I work with, The Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, are all wanting to be partners in this. And I'm sure that there are lots and lots of folks in both the scientific and lay audiences who want to help support this.

FLATOW: Shawn, any answer?

Mr. OTTO: Oh, yeah. Well, absolutely. As to how people can begin to support us, I'd love them to check us out online at And, you know, not only sign up for our petition, put their name on our petition, but give us their questions. There's a facility there where you can submit questions that will be considered by our panel that we're going to establish to ask these candidates.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. OTTO: We are talking to the Scientists and Engineers for America. They are a terrific group that are advocating for good science policy in government. We're also talking with the national academies. We're talking with the Union of Concerned Scientists. We're talking with various universities around the nation that are interested in cosponsoring this with us.

And we're also beginning to reach out to leaders in the business community. You know, we have one of the most powerful economies over the last 15, 20 years because of the high-tech industry. And there's a huge investment there that needs to be backed up.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you.

SUSAN: That's great. I'll put in a - we have some medicine questions because I think it's - these are such important issues and can probably get a lot of different ideas about what types of questions and we have them on out blog, The Pump Handle. So…

FLATOW: All right.

SUSAN: …if people are interested, there's lots out there.

FLATOW: Thank you, Susan. 1-800-989-8255. So we'll just wait to see what happens in the next few weeks then, Shawn.

Mr. OTTO: Yeah. Well, this is developing and it's at a stage where people can really get involved. We're reaching out, we're trying to build as much visibility and momentum as possible and then we're going to go to the candidates right after February 5th.

FLATOW: Any city in mind where you'll have it?

Mr. OTTO: Well, if it works out, we are in touch right now with the National Academy and they are interested, but we have to work out details. So if that works out, that's going to be at the National Academy of Sciences. But we don't know for certain.

FLATOW: That would be in Washington.

Mr. OTTO: Yes.

FLATOW: Yeah. And they are interesting in participating. If they get - they throw their weight, they're an 800-pound gorilla.

Mr. OTTO: They are. They are. As is the, you know, the AAAS, American Association for the Advancement of Science. And, you know, their chair is also one of our signers.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And do you have congressional support for this too?

Mr. OTTO: Yes, we do. We've got several Democrats and Republicans. Vern Ehlers is actually a Republican from Michigan and one of the two physicists in Congress and he's one of our co-chairs. The other physicist in Congress is a guy named Rush Holt from New Jersey and he's our other co-chair.

But we've also got Wayne Gilchrest and Jay Inslee and Betty McCollum and Jim Ramstad, a number of congressional - Tim Walz, also from Minnesota. A number of congressional leaders have signed on and we expect that more will be coming soon.

FLATOW: So wait till they die - after Super Tuesday dies down.

Mr. OTTO: Right after Super Tuesday dies down, that's when we're going to really be going for the candidates and will be giving them the formal invitations. But we really invite their campaigns, if anyone is listening out there they can contact us early if they'd like to discuss this.

But moving forward, there's no point in our reaching out at this point; they've got their hands full.

FLATOW: That's right.

Mr. OTTO: But this has been a major priority and we do intend to see it go forward.

FLATOW: Shawn Lawrence Otto of, if you'd like to get involved. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. OTTO: Thank you.

FLATOW: We'll take a break and when we come back, we're going to talk about -talk with Lester Brown about "Plan B 3.0." So stay with us.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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