Harvard Profs Call for Science Debate

Prominent Scientists want Presidential Candidates to Discuss Science Policy

A recent push for a 2008 presidential debate on science may have candidates replacing their suits with lab coats and scrambling for their periodic tables.

Science Debate 2008, a grassroots movement calling for a presidential debate on science and technology, has garnered support from Nobel Laureates, media outlets, and even Harvard faculty.

Eight Harvard science professors have publicly endorsed the initiative, which encourages candidates to verbalize their stance on the policies surrounding science.

“The field of science in America has been one of great and universally acknowledged advances ever since the early part of the 20th century,” said physics and history of science professor Gerald Holton, who is a supporter of the proposed debate.

“The danger has now become quite clear that this may be transient and therefore, scientists must speak up,” he added.

As part of a list of over 13,000 signers, Science Debate 2008 highlights the support from 42 college and university presidents, including the presidents at fellow Ivy League schools Princeton University, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

While Harvard President Drew G. Faust has not signed the petition, “she supports the call for a national public debate on science and technology policy,” according to Harvard University spokesman John D. Longbrake.

Science Debate 2008, chaired by Republican representative Vern J. Ehlers from Michigan and Democrat representative Rush Holt from New Jersey, promotes itself as a non-partisan initiative.

“An emphasis on science and technology in our national discourse has been dangerously absent in the White House, Congress, and the press,” Holt wrote in a statement to his constituents.

He added that a public debate will encourage the next administration to put a greater emphasis on science.

The Web site’s 16-member steering committee includes Harvard professor of biological oceanography James J. McCarthy, who could not be reached for comment.

Other notable supporters of the initiative are Nobel Laureate and discoverer of the structure of DNA James D. Watson, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker.

President of the Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists Calvin B. DeWitt said he thought the debate may reduce party polarization if it focuses on how science can impact policy, rather than on the dispute between creationism and evolution.

“You just don’t want to enter a debate on how the earth came to be, especially with people who are not doing anything to take care of it,” said Dewitt, who joined the steering committee last month.

“It is amplified into being a problem by those who would like to really diminish the role of science and increase the influence of immediate profit,” he added.

—Staff writer Vidya B. Viswanathan can be reached at viswanat@fas.harvard.edu.

For recent research, faculty profiles, and a look at the issues facing Harvard scientists, check out The Crimson's science page.