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 August 15, 2016
Challenge to presidential candidates: Debate about science

 Climate change. Mental health. Space exploration. Vaccinations. The health of the oceans. Antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

These are not the typical meat-and-potatoes topics of presidential debates. Often, the candidates and people who ask them questions skip over such topics entirely.

But dozens of non-partisan groups that represent millions of scientists and engineers across the country are eager to change that. For the third consecutive presidential election, the folks behind ScienceDebate.org are asking candidates to hold a debate exclusively about major issues in science, engineering, health and the environment. Since that almost certainly won't happen (it didn't in 2008 or 2012, either), the organizers have put together 20 questions they are asking candidates to address in writing.

Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said answers from the campaigns could help voters gauge how a candidate plans to use scientific information to make important decisions in the White House.

"When you look at the scope of the questions, they touch on so many issues that are important to our quality of life -- things that are going to impact our health, our economy, our future resources," McNutt said in an interview. "It certainly would be good for America to see the answers to these questions."

Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said one hope is to encourage both journalists and voters to press candidates in the coming month to speak in depth about where they stand on important scientific topics.

"Sometimes politicians think science issues are limited to simply things like the budget for NASA or NIH, and they fail to realize that a president's attitude toward and decisions about science and research affect the public well being," Holt said in a statement.

The effort has the support of a wide swath of the scientific community -- from the American Chemical Society to the Geological Society of America to the Paleontological Society. It also has a track record. In 2008, Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican nominee John McCain submitted answers to more than a dozen questions. In 2012, President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney did the same. You can see those answers here and here.

So how will the effort fare this year? Who knows. The 2016 election season has been nothing if not unpredictable.

But chances are the group is likely to hear from Hillary Clinton. The Democratic nominee has sections on her campaign website dedicated to her stances on climate change, protection of wildlife, biomedical research, the opioid addiction crisis and investing in science and technology research, among other issues. Clinton also declared in her recent speech at the Democratic National Convention, " I believe in science. I believe climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs."

Meanwhile, Republican nominee Donald Trump repeatedly has said he isn't "a believer" that humans have played a significant role in the Earth's changing climate.

In his own tweets, Trump has called the concept of global warming everything from a "hoax" to "bulls---" to a scheme "created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." (He later said he was joking about the China tweet). In a wide-ranging meeting with The Washington Post editorial board in March, he again dismissed man-made climate change. Instead, he said the type of climate change we should worry most about is nuclear weapons --- an apparent reference to Cold War-era fears over a "nuclear winter."

Trump's stance on climate change, of course, puts him at odds with the vast majority of scientists.

But the questions being asked by ScienceDebate.org go far beyond that topic, touching on research and development investments, long-term energy plans, how science and math are taught in schools and views on public health campaigns aimed at reducing smoking and drunk driving.

The 20 questions, which the group said it also will submit to Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, are posted below:

1.Science and engineering have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII. But some reports question America's continued leadership in these areas. What policies will best ensure that America remains at the forefront of innovation?

2.Many scientific advances require long-term investment to fund research over a period of longer than the two, four, or six year terms that govern political cycles. In the current climate of budgetary constraints, what are your science and engineering research priorities and how will you balance short-term versus long-term funding?

3.The Earth's climate is changing and political discussion has become divided over both the science and the best response. What are your views on climate change, and how would your administration act on those views?

4.Biological diversity provides food, fiber, medicines, clean water and many other products and services on which we depend every day. Scientists are finding that the variety and variability of life is diminishing at an alarming rate as a result of human activity. What steps will you take to protect biological diversity?

5.The Internet has become a foundation of economic, social, law enforcement, and military activity. What steps will you take to protect vulnerable infrastructure and institutions from cyber attack, and to provide for national security while protecting personal privacy on electronic devices and the internet?

6.Mental illness is among the most painful and stigmatized diseases, and the National Institute of Mental Health estimates it costs America more than $300 billion per year. What will you do to reduce the human and economic costs of mental illness?

7.Strategic management of the U.S. energy portfolio can have powerful economic, environmental, and foreign policy impacts. How do you see the energy landscape evolving over the next 4 to 8 years, and, as President, what will your energy strategy be?

8.American students have fallen in many international rankings of science and math performance, and the public in general is being faced with an expanding array of major policy challenges that are heavily influenced by complex science. How would your administration work to ensure all students including women and minorities are prepared to address 21st century challenges and, further, that the public has an adequate level of STEM literacy in an age dominated by complex science and technology?

9.Public health efforts like smoking cessation, drunk driving laws, vaccination, and water fluoridation have improved health and productivity and save millions of lives. How would you improve federal research and our public health system to better protect Americans from emerging diseases and other public health threats, such as antibiotic resistant superbugs?

10.The long-term security of fresh water supplies is threatened by a dizzying array of aging infrastructure, aquifer depletion, pollution, and climate variability. Some American communities have lost access to water, affecting their viability and destroying home values. If you are elected, what steps will you take to ensure access to clean water for all Americans?

11.Nuclear power can meet electricity demand without producing greenhouse gases, but it raises national security and environmental concerns. What is your plan for the use, expansion, or phasing out of nuclear power, and what steps will you take to monitor, manage and secure nuclear materials over their life cycle?

12.Agriculture involves a complex balance of land and energy use, worker health and safety, water use and quality, and access to healthy and affordable food, all of which have inputs of objective knowledge from science. How would you manage the US agricultural enterprise to our highest benefit in the most sustainable way?

13.We now live in a global economy with a large and growing human population. These factors create economic, public health, and environmental challenges that do not respect national borders. How would your administration balance national interests with global cooperation when tackling threats made clear by science, such as pandemic diseases and climate change, that cross national borders?

14.Science is essential to many of the laws and policies that keep Americans safe and secure. How would science inform your administration's decisions to add, modify, or remove federal regulations, and how would you encourage a thriving business sector while protecting Americans vulnerable to public health and environmental threats?

15.Public health officials warn that we need to take more steps to prevent international epidemics from viruses such as Ebola and Zika. Meanwhile, measles is resurgent due to decreasing vaccination rates. How will your administration support vaccine science?

16.There is a political debate over America's national approach to space exploration and use. What should America's national goals be for space exploration and earth observation from space, and what steps would your administration take to achieve them?

17.There is a growing opioid problem in the United States, with tragic costs to lives, families and society. How would your administration enlist researchers, medical doctors and pharmaceutical companies in addressing this issue?

18.There is growing concern over the decline of fisheries and the overall health of the ocean: scientists estimate that 90 percent of stocks are fished at or beyond sustainable limits, habitats like coral reefs are threatened by ocean acidification, and large areas of ocean and coastlines are polluted. What efforts would your administration make to improve the health of our ocean and coastlines and increase the long-term sustainability of ocean fisheries?

19.There is much current political discussion about immigration policy and border controls. Would you support any changes in immigration policy regarding scientists and engineers who receive their graduate degree at an American university? Conversely, what is your opinion of recent controversy over employment and the H1-B Visa program?

20.Evidence from science is the surest basis for fair and just public policy, but that is predicated on the integrity of that evidence and of the scientific process used to produce it, which must be both transparent and free from political bias and pressure. How will you foster a culture of scientific transparency and accountability in government, while protecting scientists and federal agencies from political interference in their work?