A nonprofit organization is on a mission to get presidential candidates talking science on a public stage.

The nonpartisan group, ScienceDebate.org, has been firing candidates with crowdsourced-, scientists-approved questions about the future of federally funded basic research, the importance of revitalizing global oceans and ways to ensure food security, among other topics, since the 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain.

ScienceDebate.org’s pointed questions aim to fix the disconnect between the public and the candidates. The organization found that the vast majority of Americans think it’s important that presidential candidates be savvy on science informing public policy issues, but less than half of Americans claim to know current candidates’ positions on science policies, according to a public opinion poll of U.S. adults commissioned jointly with Research!America in October 2015.

Although the presidential candidates in both the 2008 and 2012 elections answered questions curated by ScienceDebate.org, they did so in an online forum instead of a live, televised debate, which had been the organization’s original intent, Nancy Holt, the Director of Development for ScienceDebate.org, said.

The presidential candidates in 2016, however, likely won’t have the luxury of answering scientific questions in their pajamas. “We are working very hard to get them to show up in person,” Holt said.

In the beginning

The founders of ScienceDebate.org created their organization to address the 2008 presidential candidates’ dearth of dialogue about science and technology issues.

Film director and screenwriter Matthew Chapman joined forces with author and science advocate Shawn Lawrence Otto, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, science journalist Chris Mooney, author and polling expert Sheril Kirshenbaum and science philosopher Austin Dacey to create “Science Debate 2008,” the first incarnation of ScienceDebate.org.

After its founding, numerous people and organizations jumped on board including 24 Nobel laureates, 172 leaders of scientific institutions, 108 university presidents and 55 current or former company leaders, and many societies and organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academies. It also boasts backers like actor Johnny Depp, presidential science adviser John Holdren, inventor Elon Musk, Bill Nye the Science Guy and the Geological Society of America.

“The extraordinary speed at which Science- Debate2008 became a national cause célèbre demonstrates that the U.S. scientific establishment can be quickly organized when motivated,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum and others in an article published in Science in 2008.

Kirshenbaum and her coauthors list numerous reasons for creating ScienceDebate.org, including: inaccurate media coverage; lackluster science education; widespread public science illiteracy; flat funding and cutbacks to research funding; lack of credible public policy responses to environmental issues including climate change; and governmental suppression of scientific information.

Debates in 2008 and 2012

The public submitted around 3,400 questions to ScienceDebate.org during the 2008 presidential election. The organization’s staff mulled over the questions with scientists at various scientific organizations and institutions to refine them down to the top 14.

ScienceDebate.org sent its questions over to Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008 and Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. All candidates answered the questions and ScienceDebate.org posted them online.

Questions from 2008 covered various topics:

  1. How to keep America at the forefront of innovation?
  2. How to address climate change?
  3. How to balance demand for energy with an economically and environmentally sustainable future?
  4. How should the federal government act to prepare K-12 students for future science and technology innovations?
  5. How should science and technology be best used to ensure national security?
  6. How should the U.S. protect citizens from global pandemics or biological attacks?
  7. How should the U.S. create policies that balance benefits of genetic advances and their potential risks?
  8. How should the U.S. proceed on stem cell research?
  9. How should the U.S. protect ocean health?
  10. How should policy address demands on water resources?
  11. How should the U.S. prioritize space research?
  12. How should the U.S. balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in decision making?
  13. How should the U.S. fund basic research?
  14. How should science, research and technology contribute to improving health and quality of life?

Questions from 2012 largely echoed the previous election year’s questions, with a few adjustments. Innovation, climate change, basic research funding, pandemics, science education, sustainable and secure energy, ocean health and space research questions reappeared during the 2012 presidential debates.

New questions to 2012 include ones about food security, internet management, science in public policy, critical natural resources, and vaccines and public health. The question about water resources was refined to address freshwater in the 2012 debate, specifically how the federal government can ensure clean water for its citizens.

New format for 2016

In defiance of its name, ScienceDebate.org is looking to host a live, televised forum instead of a debate in 2016. “A debate is sort of talking back and forth, and that has to be fully sanctioned by the DNC (Democratic National Committee) for the candidates to respond to each other,” or the Republican National Committee for Republican candidates, said Holt.

Instead, the format will likely be a forum, during which the candidates speak back to back. “It’s a forum on science and the environment,” Holt said. “The issues to some degree may change this year,” Holt said. “The extent of the questions will be similar, but there may be some topical differences,” Holt continued.

To stay up-to-date with ScienceDebate.org, people can sign its petition through its website to show support and receive newsletters. ScienceDebate.org is also on social media, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

The organization is also accepting questions for the 2016 presidential candidates. “We haven’t written them this year, yet,” said Holt.


By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow