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Obama and Romney spar over climate, other science in online debate

The candidates for president have very different views on the big science issues.

President Barack Obama and his challenger Governor Mitt Romney have answered fourteen Top American Science Questions put to them by the grassroots nonprofit I lead,

The candidates’ answers provide valuable insight into their positions on issues that, while among the most important facing the country, usually get short shrift on the campaign trail. Here they are:

Innovation | Climate Change | Research and the Future | Pandemics and Biosecurity | Education | Energy | Food | Fresh Water | The Internet | Ocean Health | Science in Public Policy | Space | Critical Natural Resources | Vaccination and Public Health

One of the most interesting highlights from the responses is Mitt Romney’s shift on climate change away from his more recent position of “My view is we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet…” back toward his view in June of 2011, shortly after announcing his run for president, when he acknowledged that people are significant contributors. Romney was slammed by Rush Limbaugh four days later, who said “Bye-bye nomination. Another one down. We’re in the midst here of discovering that this is all a hoax. The last year has established that the whole premise of man-made global warming is a hoax, and we still have presidential candidates who want to buy into it.”

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Romney’s change in position is unlikely to please his base, many of whom continue to deny the findings of climate science, and to whom Romney has been joking about climate change. The shift signals that he has begun reaching out to more mainstream voters. But after acknowledging the reality and human causes, Romney moves back into denial when he says there is no scientific consensus. There is. Romney uses the claim there is not to reject cap-and-trade as a solution. He prefers to encourage innovation and increase nuclear power in a “no regrets” strategy. So, it’s complicated.

The responses are interesting in other ways as well. Obama never calls out vaccine-autism science deniers who are largely on the left, (vaccines don’t cause autism) but neither does Romney. Many readers have expressed surprise at the length and thoughtfulness of the Romney answers. Even so, readers have generally said they feel Obama’s answers are more grounded on concrete, well-thought-out policy, but they are disappointed that his answers are largely touting past accomplishments or existing policy positions instead of charting a more visionary path forward on these big issues, like he did in 2008.

The responses are also notable for what they don’t say. Some of the questions aren’t fully answered when they become politically difficult and others could really benefit from followup discussion, for example to hear what ideas the candidates really have for solving problems like climate change that cross national boundaries — a problem that is cropping up more and more in a world with a global economy but without a global regulatory structure. The European financial crisis is another good example of the problem, as was the American financial crisis. When people have a chance to internalize gains and externalize losses, whether they be economic or environmental, they will.

The Top American Science Questions were developed by asking thousands of scientists, engineers, and concerned citizens to submit the most important questions they thought the candidates should be debating but weren’t. then worked with several leading US science organizations, including the National Academies, the AAAS, the Council on Competitiveness, IEEE-USA, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others listed on the site to refine those questions into the final fourteen that the group universally agreed were the most important. Barack Obama and John McCain answered similar questions in 2008. is a grassroots nonprofit organization funded by individual small donations and run by volunteers. Its supporters include more than 40,000 scientists and engineers, concerned citizens, about 200 leading universities and science organizations, dozens of Nobel laureates, and notable writers and editors.

Along with its media partner Scientific American magazine, the group has also asked some three dozen members of Congress that lead key science committees to answer a subset of eight of the fourteen questions. To date, just two have responded.

The questions and answers are part of a larger effort to move political dialog into the twenty-first century. Candidates readily debate jobs and the economy even though they are not economists; they debate foreign policy and military intervention even though they are not diplomats or generals; they debate faith and values even though they are not priests or pastors. They should be equally comfortable debating the Top American Science Questions that affect all voters’ lives — and a forum, unlike an online exchange of answers, allows for pointed follow-up discussions that would be really helpful on these major topics. To date, neither candidate has accepted the invitation to a presidential forum on these important questions. We know the public’s interested. 85% of likely voters want them to be debating these topics. The fact is that debating the big science issues is what America is all about. We’re a country of innovators. We lead the world in science, though that position is now threatened. Having a simple debate on these topics is what leadership and democracy is all about, and it’s high time that candidates realize it.

You can sign up to follow ScienceDebate’s efforts at and the group accepts donations to support its work at

This post was written by Shawn Lawrence Otto and originally published on Neorenaissance. Follow Shawn on Twitter: @shawnotto  

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