U conference looks for solutions to science policy issues

Reality-based decision making âÄî it sounds like common sense, but Shawn Otto , CEO of Science Debate 2008, said scientists are concerned that political spin is taking the place of facts as the basis for political decision making. Innovation 2008, a conference held Monday and Tuesday at the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute, aimed to address the science related challenges the next administration will face. Leah Wilkes , assistant director of Humphrey Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy, said the issues raised by Science Debate 2008 are the core of the conference. Otto said he and others started the Science Debate 2008 initiative because they were concerned that, though science and technology âÄúseem to be at the center of almost every major challenge facing the United States,âÄù the topic was missing from early presidential campaigns. Within weeks of launching the website last November, 38,000 individuals had signed on to support their goal of getting candidates to talk about science policy issues. An actual science debate didnâÄôt happen, which Otto said was frustrating, but each candidate did respond to 14 specific science policy questions. Otto said concerns that top scientistsâÄô lists are the effect on the economy of declining investments in research, climate change, ocean health, health care and scientific integrity. Though itâÄôs important for scientists to engage with policymakers, Steve Kelley, CSTPP director, said, they also need to communicate with the broader public since policymakers ultimately respond to their constituents. He said many Innovation 2008 presenters helped confirm that creative connections to arts and culture could help the public understand science. One presenter showed âÄústriking imagesâÄù of a group that portrays environmental concerns through dance. Steve Peichel , electrical engineering senior and Solar Decathlon engineering team lead, said he understands itâÄôs hard for politicians to know enough about complex scientific issues to make good policies. He doesnâÄôt expect candidates to have an intimate understanding of the complexities of global warming âÄî but he said he looks for candidates to be thoughtful, recognize how complicated some problems are and show they have a staff that can help them solve these problems. Otto echoed that sentiment. He said one way to assess the differences between the presidential candidates is to look at who is advising them. He said Barack Obama has a robust science advisory committee, led by the former director of the National Institutes of Health . He said most of John McCainâÄôs science and technology representation is currently being done by an economist, but McCain has pledged to fill the position of Science Adviser early in his administration. Environment and Energy One discussion was intended specifically to address energy security and sustainability and panel members spanned a range of scales as they addressed those issues. Jon Foley , director of the UniversityâÄôs Institute on the Environment , emphasized the overall unprecedented challenge faced due to global warming, water pollution and tropical deforestation, while chemistry professor Marc Hillmyer discussed specific bio-based products, like plastic made from corn. Holly Lahd , president of EcoWatch , said candidates are talking about energy and environmental issues separately, but because theyâÄôre integrally linked, a comprehensive strategy is needed to address both. For example, she said, pushing to drill for more oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not compatible with the goal of reducing emissions, but itâÄôs not easy to see that if theyâÄôre presented as separate goals. It should matter to U Otto said students should pay close attention to the issues this election season. âÄúI think the stakes are probably higher now than they have been in at any time in these studentsâÄô lifetimes,âÄù he said. âÄúIâÄôm not a scientistâÄù, he added, âÄúI care about these issues because I understand how theyâÄôre going to impact the future, which inordinately falls on young people.âÄù Students can find out where candidates stand by reading their responses to those 14 science policy questions at sciencedebate2008.com .