Name Your Issue: Science in the 2008 Election What science-related issues do you want to hear addressed by the presidential hopefuls? Climate change? Health care? Funding for research? Spaceflight? Weigh in with your votes for the most important science-related issues in the 2008 election by e-mailing vote@sciencefriday.com.
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Name Your Issue: Science in the 2008 Election

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Name Your Issue: Science in the 2008 Election

Name Your Issue: Science in the 2008 Election

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, what issues should the presidential candidates address? You - I've asked you at the beginning of the segment at the beginning of the hour to write us. Send us your e-mail. They are flooding in with the issues that you think the presidential candidates - what topic should be under discussion that are not being under discussion in this election season? You know, in recent polls, asking what issues people consider most important when deciding to vote for, the economy and the war in Iraq are usually at the top of the list but there are a lot of other topics that should be discussed. What about science? There are growing number of academic scientists, business leaders and government officials, journalists, yours truly included, and organizations and several Nobel laureates, that say that science issues should be on that list.

They're asking the presidential candidates to participate in a science debate called Science Debate 2008? If they were to, what issues should they be talking about? Even if they're not going to, what issues should we have Wolf Blitzer and the other folks who conducted these debates ask them to do.

Give us a call, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

And joining me now to talk about some of these issues and make a case for a science debate is David Baltimore, winner of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He's the new president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he is professor of biology at CalTech in Pasadena. And he joins us today by phone from his office at CalTech.

Welcome back to the program, Dr. Baltimore.

Doctor DAVID BALTIMORE (President, American Association for the Advancement of Science; Biology Professor, California Institute of Technology; Winner, 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine): Hi, Ira. It's been a while.

FLATOW: It's been awhile, yeah. I know that you're very vocal, you're very active in trying to get this, the debate going. If there even, if there is not - no debate, I'm sure you still believe that the candidates should be talking about science.

Dr. BALTIMORE: Of course.

FLATOW: And anything at the top of the list there? A short list of things that are not being talked about?

Dr. BALTIMORE: Well, I think one of the things that has to be at the top of the list is the integrity of the whole process of scientific advice to the government. We have to go back to the time when scientists were respected in government and respected for their independence as well as for their, you know, laboratory expertise. And I'm looking forward to an administration that will treat science with more respect.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you'd like to talk about what should be at the top of the list.

In that vein, we got some mail in already. And this e-mail comes from Brian Shiro(ph). And he writes, a top issue of concern everyone is protecting our planet's environment through sound policies that curb pollution, encourage recycling. He says, personally, the issue I get most excited about is space. I haven't heard any candidate speaking seriously about how they plan to enable Bush's vision for space exploration to the moon and maybe send humans to Mars. He says he also works for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and have many colleagues who work for the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA. The story is the same for everyone: budgets keep getting cut while more demands are placed on the scientists. If the U.S. is to compete with the rest of the world in science and technology, we must give our scientists the funding they need to do their jobs properly.

David, I don't think any scientist would ever say we don't have enough money.

Dr. BALTIMORE: No, of course not. But I think the people who are monitoring our planet, particularly from space, have a very good argument that they are not getting the funds that are necessary for them to do their job. I think there has been an avoidance in the present administration of providing sufficient funds for Earth monitoring. And Earth monitoring is one of the things that we can do from space particularly well and follow climate change, follow very important elements like cloud cover, like ocean temperatures, ocean activity, El Nino and whatever. And we are losing that capability as spacecraft age, and we're not replacing it with the new spacecraft that we need, which, of course, will have higher sensitivities and greater ability to give us information.

FLATOW: Talking about science issues this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

I'm talking with David Baltimore, and taking your suggestions. Let's go to the phones. To Heidi(ph) in Nashville.

Hi, Heidi.

HEIDI (Caller): Hi there. I have a question that's a very unpopular subject especially amongst politicians for obvious reasons. And that is the issue of population because I think it's the root of a lot of our environmental and scientific issues, is population. Nobody ever talks about sort of the elephant in the room and I just wonder what your guest have to say about that.

FLATOW: David, any comment?

Dr. BALTIMORE: Yeah. I'm no expert on population but it is my impression that as countries develop economically that they start - people start having fewer and fewer children for a variety of reasons. And so many countries today - developed countries - are in negative population growth. The United States is just about even if I understand correctly. And so I think your caller is correct that population has been a major driving force. We've seen huge increases in population in the last couple of decades. But I think it is in better control than in has been and if we can bring Africa and the other poor nations of the world up to a level of development, that problem will, in a sense, take care of itself.

FLATOW: Let's look at some more of the mail that came in here, to our vote@gmail address.

Ann Holm(ph) says the - brings up an old issue. The science issue that should be discussed by the candidates is the metric system. Remember that one. Should the U.S. convert to the metric system, it's important because of education and global trade. We talked about that in what - the late 70s, the early 80s? (Unintelligible)…

Dr. BALTIMORE: Yeah, we've talk about it forever.

FLATOW: It's never happened and I don't think it's going to happen very soon.

Dr. BALTIMORE: There's a tremendous resistance in the general population against the - it seems like there are more important things to worry about.

FLATOW: Someone else says that I'd like to see a discussion about how we treat the domestic and farm animals - on welfare of horses and other kinds of animals.

We'll take some more of your e-mails and your questions on the phone. What do you think the candidates should talk about? We'll have to take a short break. We'll be right back with David Baltimore, so stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking about - taking your questions, your ideas about what the presidential candidates should debate or talk about. When they talk about science issues, a lot of science issues that are never getting talked about in presidential debates that are happening. We're seeing a lot of questions talking about people suggesting climate change, stem cell research, to talk about those.

If you'd like to go to our blog, I have a blog up on sciencefriday.com. You can log on there and leave your suggestion for what we should be talking about, or you could send us an e-mail at vote@gmail.com. Vote - I'm sorry, vote@sciencefriday.com, and we will get your stuff sent over the air, vote@sciencefriday.com

Also, David Baltimore, what do you think stem cell research, one which is certainly, I know you know about and it certainly one of the topic of discussion here, looking at all the e-mails. Certainly, it's not gone away as an issue?

Dr. BALTIMORE: No, stem cells is not going away as an issue where there still a ban on using any stem cells that were generated before August of 2001, in using - you can't use federal funds to investigate them. We really need a much more open stem cell policy. I think all of the major candidates now are in favor of that. Well, I'm treating McCain as if he is one, I guess, but McCain as well as Democratic candidates.

And so I'm hopeful that we will be in a different climate and come the next administration, and there'll be freedom for scientists to operate in the stem cell area and to make their own decisions about what they want to do instead of following a said government policy.

FLATOW: All right. Let me see if I can bicycle quickly through some of these questions here, and let you get - let our listeners get on the air.

Barbara(ph) in Kalamazoo. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BARBARA (Caller): Hi. Thank you, Ira. Speaking of openness, I'd like our current administration to do something, which they absolutely refuse to do and I hope the next one will address the issue of whether there really are extraterrestrials around. All the other governments of countries are talking about it. We are not and we're giving this information about things which has supposedly happened. I'd like a much more open discussion as whether there are or there not.

FLATOW: All right. Let's go now to Michael(ph) in - oh, I missed him. Michael's gone, in Reading in Pennsylvania. Let's go to Bill(ph) in Berkeley.

Hi, Bill.

BILL (Caller): Hi, Ira. Thank you.

FLATOW: Yes.

BILL: On all discussions of global concerns, I'm concerned that it's almost never that people talk about the United Nations' angle of this activity or that activity or how can the U.N. support or how can we as nations with problems look to the U.N. as supportive and I think I heard you mention U.N. in some connection earlier but it's like, I think economic people and scientific people and military people all skip the possible inclusion or value of the United Nations.

FLATOW: All right.

BILL: And I hope you can say something relative to that.

FLATOW: David, any comment on the U.N.?

Dr. BALTIMORE: I don't have any particular comment about that.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, there are U.N. science organizations that exist.

BILL: Absolutely.

Dr. BALTIMORE: Sure.

FLATOW: Yeah.

BILL: But then, I would love to see the scientists in U.N. organizations lead all of us into seeing there are U.N.-related answers to all the problems, technical, scientific, political, economic. There are U.N.-related parts of solutions that hardly ever get mentioned on programs or whatever.

FLATOW: All right. Good luck. We'll see what we can do for you.

Carol(ph) in St. Louis. Hi, Carol. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CAROL (Caller): Thank you. I'd like to bring up the issue of brain development rates between boys and girls, and elementary school and secondary education and No Child Left Behind. Unfortunately, in its current form, does not take this into account. And unfortunately, early elementary years turn a lot of boys off to school, so I mean, part of the reason why college is becoming female dominant is because a lot of boys just hate school. And unfortunately, once you get into high school, girls' brain development isn't, you know, as compatible with the curriculum and so we get fewer females going into science than we would if our curricula took brain development into account.

FLATOW: Good topic.

David, if you want to jump in on any of these? Please, feel free.

1-800-989-8255.

One interesting topic I think that we need to talk about more that we talked about here on SCIENCE FRIDAY a few weeks ago was the study by The Urban Institute that showed that contrary to what we believe about college - science and engineering graduates in colleges and doctoral candidates who are getting their PhD's, this study show that there are three times as many qualified graduates as there are jobs for them when they get out of school. And the question was, you know, why do we see so many foreign students coming in to take the jobs that these graduates are capable of taking themselves?

And there was no - there was only anecdotes - the study was not created to answer that question but just to come up with a statistical basis for talking about it. And the anecdotal evidence that the researcher was willing to share was that he pointed out that somewhere along the line, these graduate students and these engineering students are not taking jobs in their fields. They're being lost in the cracks some place. And they're going into other higher paying jobs, perhaps. So if it is true that there are all of these qualified students able to take these jobs, where are they going? And I think that's something we should look into. Yeah.

Dr. BALTIMORE: There is a funny disconnect between the statistical discussions of available personnel and the experience that people who are trying to hire. And I don't know what the difference is, but you've highlighted it there.

FLATOW: Yeah, I mean, there's something if - let's deal with some, you know, what's the truth here are, you know? Are we putting the blame on the wrong place? We're talking about, you know, bringing graduate students out of the country in here or are we not? There was also some interesting NSF data that's out that I was reading in science - in your magazine, that talked about that foreign students are hanging around a lot longer than we think they are. They're not going back to their countries once they come over here.

Dr. BALTIMORE: That is certainly my impression. We have a system of development of young people through assistant associates, full professors in universities and equivalent positions in research institutes, which is very attractive to young people from foreign countries who've come here for training and then see that we really nurture young talent, whereas back in their countries, they've got to fight to get on a rung of a ladder. And so they stay here and - the very best of them go up to our hierarchy and then they have a choice, because now they're wanted back in their country, but at a very higher level.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. BALTIMORE: And you get an offer from the Max Planck Institute in Germany. It's hard to turn down.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255.

Hi, Debbie(ph) in Alva, Florida. Did I get that right?

DEBBIE (Caller): Hi, there. Yes, you got that right. Alva, Florida. It's near North Fort Myers, so nobody's ever heard of it. But it's Thomas Alva Edison's middle name.

FLATOW: Maybe he came to Florida quite a bit, didn't he?

DEBBIE: He sure - he spent a lot - he slept here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEBBIE: Okay, but anyway, I was really, really concerned because I do know that Barack Obama supports - I know supported by coal, ethanol and nuclear power, and Hillary prefers renewables, which I do, too, maybe some tariff on fossil fuels and a cap and trade system. I think McCain supports nuclear, I'm not sure. But what I like to see is I like to see exactly - I like to see them talk about this, because I feel we have 10 years to turn this thing around with the global warming. And we need to get serious about things like the solar that you discussed in your other program. I was so relived to hear it so doable.

FLATOW: You know, you see snippets; they've all talked about alternative energies. But they have not discussed them in a good debate.

Ms. DEBBIE: Right.

FLATOW: You've seen snippets on television of…

Ms. DEBBIE: Right.

FLATOW: …you know, when they're speaking to small crowds. And I've heard Hillary and Barack and McCain - I'll share a little secret with you. I once met John McCain at a meeting, and I asked him - it was a couple of - a few years ago, why the president was on board with his carbon tax idea, and his idea of, you know, cap and trade or any of the carbon legislation he had, and he said to me, Tony Blair is working on them.

MS. DEBBIE: Oh, really.

FLATOW: It tells you how long ago that was. So, I mean, they're all talking. They're all talking about this stuff. And - but we don't have a long, you know, place where they can sit down and hear them discuss it in detail and that's - in one of those primary states. So…

Ms. DEBBIE: Right.

FLATOW: I agree with you.

Dr. BALTIMORE: Yeah. I think that's one of the reasons why we need this science debate to talk about these nuances. And actually, your caller talks about a lot of different modes of alternative energy generation, and she's sort of right about everything. We need to look at everything. And whether one candidate prefers one or another, I think in the end, the important thing is that they're committed to looking for alternative energy sources and working out the details. They'll change over time as we get better and better technologies in particular for capturing solar.

FLATOW: And the AAAS has recently signed on to the Science Debate 2008.

Dr. BALTIMORE: Yes, the AAAS is a formal sponsor of the debate now. And let me get AAAS another plug here. If you want to know what the candidates' positions are on a range of science issues, if they have any position, then you can look on a website that AAAS run called election2008.aaas.org. And they're trying to keep up-to-date on the positions of the individual candidates. Of course, there are fewer candidates now. This is being done in association with the American - the association of American universities and supported by the Lounsbury Foundation.

FLATOW: Good point there. That is a terrific site.

Let's go to Jay(ph) in Maryland. Hi, Jay.

Mr. JAY (Caller): Hi. I want to talk about something that has been discussed a little bit on the debates and that has been the focal point of the current administration - that's electronic medical records. Most of the physician community agree that electronic medical records would be a great boon to general medical practice. But the difficulty seems to be that there's a tremendous amount of balkanization(ph) in the creation of these records and a tremendous amount of resistance on the part of private physicians to use electronic medical record systems that are compatible so that records can be moved from physician to physician and so the information can be shared between specialists and general practice physicians in the hospitals.

And the difficulty that seems to be the case here is that there's a great deal of requirement for standardization and government action in this arena, but not a great deal of incentive to do that because of the effects that it might have on the general medical business and general health care business in the United States. I wonder what kind of solutions you think would be appropriate and, you know, there is an interesting proposal on the floor of the house now for independent health record trust which would actually create independent businesses to keep medical records across these different health care providers. But it's getting very little attention from either the Democrats or the Republicans.

FLATOW: Well, you gave it some attention today.

Dr. BALTIMORE: Right.

FLATOW: I would think that if - somewhere along the line, there's going to be some sort of medical legislation happening, and maybe this will become part of it. But medical records are certainly an issue when - and the privacy records are certainly the issue, an issue that we have been talking about, and I think you can see reflected that you, the public, think is very important.

We're talking about what questions to ask the presidential candidates this hour in TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR News, talking with David Baltimore about these issues. David, you have been watching these things for decades and…

Dr. BALTIMORE: Yes.

FLATOW: You see any difference in the tenor? I know you said that at the top of your issue was - at the top of your list was to get science reforms in government policy. Some people say that this has been going on for years. Do you think it's been worst in the last seven years than before?

Dr. BALTIMORE: I do think it's been worst in the last seven years. There's no question that it has gone on before. And that doesn't make it any better. But we seen a quantum leap in the attempt to control the kind of information that government scientist can provide to the population. And we really need to take off that model.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a caller, two more in here. Let's go to Brian(ph) in Jacksonville. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi, how's it going?

FLATOW: Hi there.

Dr. BALTIMORE: Very nice.

BRIAN: I was wondering - this might seem a little bit far off in the future when this problem will come about, but I noticed nobody really discusses the need for deep space migration and the fact that our sun will eventually die and with it, all of our future generations.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So…

BRIAN: And, you know, there have been programs, like, since the '60s and '70s, I think, Timothy Leary may have been trying to figure a way off the planet, but we'll eventually have to learn how to plan that up. And to get from this planet to the next, with possible a younger star that, as (unintelligible) heat source, but ours is going to die. And what are we going to do about it? I know, you know, maybe a 150 billion years or something like that…

FLATOW: Well, it's not too early to wait. It could happen, though, for a different reason, a lot sooner than that, yeah.

BRIAN: Right.

FLATOW: We could just use the place up. There are people who suggest that we need to move because we're using up the - we're using up the planet, so to speak.

BRIAN: Yeah. And I think they originally found a planet that, that seems to be kind of sustainable like we are. Another bluish planet somewhere off in the distance.

FLATOW: Well, what doomsday scenario I worry more about is a rock hitting us, you know?

BRIAN: Yeah, that's another one. (Unintelligible)

FLATOW: The one that's got our name on it that we're not seeing, you know?

BRIAN: I'm sorry?

FLATOW: David, you know, that - looking for that rock.

Dr. BALTIMORE: Well, we are looking for them. And again, we could be funding research in that area more effectively than we are so that we have a little more sense of confidence that there isn't something lurking out there.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. BALTIMORE: But I'm not particularly concerned about the sun giving out. That's billions of years off. And we've got to worry about renewable energy sources right now. The sun will be there for the next billions of years, providing all the energy that the earth needs. We just have to figure out how to capture it.

FLATOW: And I think this election in particular offers a unique opportunity to talk about some of these issues.

Dr. BALTIMORE: It does. And I think - when you say unique, you're right. Presidential elections in previous times have never had the kind of urgency of science issues that we have today, particularly with the renewable energy issues at the top of the list. And so I think there's every reason why we should be behaving differently in this campaign and taking science more into our discussions.

FLATOW: Well, David, I want to thank you, as always. You're always been very eager and helpful to take time to talk with us.

Dr. BALTIMORE: Good. I love the opportunity.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Have a good weekend. And we'll keep watching about the Science Debate 2008.

Dr. BALTIMORE: All right. We'll see everybody, I hope, at the AAAS meeting in Boston.

FLATOW: We'll be there. We'll be broadcasting live from the AAAS meeting as we do every year in Boston in a couple of weeks.

Dr. BALTIMORE: Okay.

FLATOW: David Baltimore, winner of the 1975 Nobel Prize, president of the American Association for Advancement of Science, and professor of biology at Caltech in Pasadena.

Greg Smith composed our theme music. We had help today from NPR librarian Kee Malesky. If you'd like to surf over to our website, it's sciencefriday.com. We're still taking e-mails. It's better than - better yet, why don't you go to the blog I've started. And you can all listen and share your e-mails at sciencefriday.com. What kinds of big questions you'd like to be asked of the presidential candidates? Also, we're podcasting and we have video podcast up there, and waiting to hear from you. Send us your videos. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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