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Aspen event ignites national science debate

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Aspen often is embroiled in national issues, but this might be the first time that national attention involves the town’s role in encouraging more intensive science and technology education in U.S. schools.

Building on an idea that apparently first came to light at an Aspen seminar last summer, a national collection of scientists, college leaders and other thinkers is trying to get the leading U.S. presidential candidates to join a debate on science and technology policy.

Sciencedebate2008, touting itself as a “citizens initiative,” recently announced candidates had been formally invited to a debate at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on April 18, four days before the Pennsylvania primary.

Kevin Ward, executive director of the Aspen Science Center, said the push for a national debate featuring presidential candidates was first raised at an Aspen Science Center forum, “Getting It Right: Science and the Media In the Emerging Media Landscape,” held last July.

The science center, co-founded by Ward and Woody Creek physicist George Stranahan, is affiliated with the Aspen Center for Physics and is based on the Aspen Meadows campus.

One of those who attended the “science and media summit,” as it became known, was Lawrence Krauss, professor of physics at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Krauss is a steering committee member for Sciencedebate2008, which formally began in December.

“We as a nation desperately need a more scientifically literate electorate and leadership, and a presidential debate on these subjects would be a good first step in this direction,” Krauss wrote in an opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal on Dec. 6, 2007. In the piece, Krauss refers to the Aspen forum and its offshoot, the Aspen Science Working Group, and urges the candidates to get on board for the April debate.

Ward said President George Bush “has legitimized scientific ignorance in the public arena … with his anti-science rhetoric” on everything from evolution to global warming.

Accusing the president of dismissing global warming as “just another theory,” Ward said: “So’s gravity. I invite him to walk off the roof of a three-story building [if proof of the theory is needed].”

A hastily called precursor to the main Sciencedebate2008 event, held Feb. 16 in Boston, was not attended by any of the candidates but instead drew the campaign science advisors for Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

According to a report about the Feb. 16 discussion, published on CosmicLog, the MSNBC technology and science website, Clinton sent Thomas Kalil, her campaign’s adviser on science, while the Obama camp sent Alec Ross, the Obama campaign’s adviser on technology, media and telecommunications. The two reportedly carried on a highly partisan exchange as to which candidate will be more engaged in improving U.S. science education.

Ward, the Aspen Science Center, the Aspen Institute and its CEO, Walter Isaacson, and the Aspen Science Working Group are among the signatories to Sciencedebate2008.

The push for the debate has garnered a series of impressive endorsements in recent weeks, including 97 major universities and other organizations, and such leading business executives as Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel, as well as Nobel laureates and current and former government officials.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Isaacson said Monday, speaking from the Aspen Institute’s offices in Washington, D.C. He said he hopes the growing chorus of voices from the scientific, business and academic communities will convince Clinton, Obama and Republican John McCain that the debate is something they should not miss.

“This is about the future of America,” Shawn Otto, a Hollywood screenwriter and one of the debate organizers, said in a recent statement. “Most of the major policy challenges the next president will face, from climate change to jobs and economic competitiveness to health care to the health of the oceans, center on science and technology.”

With the request for a debate among the candidates, Otto continued, “We are trying to elevate these important policy issues in the national dialogue. We want voters to have a chance to assess candidates in terms of their visionary leadership on these big issues and others like them. It’s not a science quiz, it’s about policy.”

Otto said Monday that he had not yet received any response from the candidates and that he remains hopeful that one or more will respond in time for the event.

More information about the Sciencedebate2008 is available on the website, sciencedebate2008.com.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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