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What would a Nobel scientist ask the Senate candidates?

Minnesotans could have taken a potent dose of science along with their politics had Nobel Laureate Peter Agre run for a U.S. Senate seat in the state this year.

Peter Agre
Peter Agre

Minnesotans could have taken a potent dose of science along with their politics had Nobel Laureate Peter Agre run for a U.S. Senate seat in the state this year. Agre, who shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2003, considered running then decided against it.

In a bid to salvage that element of the political discourse, I asked Agre to list science-related issues voters should keep in mind as they evaluate candidates in 2008.

Education is one prominent issue worrying Agre and a host of other scientists. Many of them were inspired and trained during the Cold War when the so-called space race engaged Americans from the White House to the living room. In a recent headline observing the 50th anniversary of the launching of the satellite Sputnik, The New York Times noted that “science suddenly mattered in space and in class.”

Now, though, the nation seems willing to accept mediocrity in science education. As a result, a new generation of Americans may lack the skills to compete in the global marketplace, said the nonpartisan organization Scientists and Engineers for America, where Agre is on the board of directors.

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“In the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, almost half of all 12th graders scored below the basic level of proficiency in science,” the organization said in a call for more scientists to run for public office. “In international standardized tests, high school students fall below international averages in mathematics literacy and problem solving.”

No candidate would take a stand against education. Still, many have managed to malign the public schools in their campaigns, said Agre, who graduated from Roosevelt High School and Augsburg College in Minneapolis. And public schools remain the most ready vehicle for delivering science and math education to the broadest range of students.

Voters should not let candidates get by with “weakly or superficially” supporting public education in general and failing to address urgent needs for stepped up science education, said Agre, who works as vice chancellor for science and technology at Duke University in North Carolina.

Science and politics
Another issue on Agre’s list — availability of health care — is prominent in one form or another on almost every candidate’s slate. Agre adds a scientist’s twist. Ask the candidates, he suggests, what role the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences should play in shaping health care policy. Because most elected officials have negligible backgrounds in medicine and science, they often rely on the expertise of self-serving lobbyists, he said. And important decisions often are based on ideology and political rhetoric rather than science-based advice from leading national experts at the non-partisan institute.

When it comes to environmental issues, Agre urges voters to think in personal terms and grill candidates on the stakes for Minnesota’s beloved parks, lakes and wilderness areas. He’s paddled and portaged more than his share of terrain in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Global climate change and other environmental problems are diminishing Minnesota’s natural resources, he said, and voters should expect candidates to address specifics of the problems in close-to-home terms. What do they say, for example, about prospects for a decline in lake trout because of rising temperatures in northern lakes?

Energy will be part of the debate, Agre said, and voters shouldn’t settle for bromides and easy answers to the complex problems. The nation is overdue for a scientific assessment of the true costs of energy to the environment.

“While carbon tax often is mentioned by candidates, where will they begin?” he asked. “How can they reduce the gridlock and over use of highways without the specter of ‘big brother is watching’?”

Of course, there is a bottom line question too. Funding is critical for K-12 science education and for research, Agre said.