Looking for Answers?

My choice of presidential candidate has been unambiguous for several months, but it was still very fascinating to learn a few months ago that presidential candidates had answered 14 questions on science posed by the Science Debate 2008 team. I was so super-interested in the whole thing because I’ve been wondering exactly how we’re planning on making a turnaround in the science world, and out came the September 25 issue of Nature, featuring McCain and Obama on the cover, with questions posed in the issue. There was only one problem: Most people don’t get Nature. Scientists get Nature.

The more I talked with friends, the more I could see that they were into learning about the candidates’ stances on science and science policy, but had no idea that the answers were out there. I’m a scientist who’s been pretty much chained to the bench since I was 19 (it’s been 13 years since), so it’s easy for me to encounter things like that issue of Nature. It’s all over for me. My friends? Not so much. A few musicians, a few realtors, a journalist with no scientific specialties, a PR exec for some high-end restaurants, they aren’t running into Nature. We’ve all been feeling like it’s pretty tough to get straight answers on much of anything out of the candidates, even if those “straight answers” are crafted by a team, and I’ve had no expectations about hearing a whole lot that gave me great clarity on the candidates’ views beyond what they’ve already presented, let alone hearing a peep about science. Given the good company, I had an event here that I called Night Lab in Chicago for the public on Sunday to highlight the Science Debate 2008 call and response, and was astounded by the fact (and grateful) that the majority of the people there were complete strangers–they really want to hear about this!

Dr. Geoff Morris, an ecology and evolutionary biologist here at the University of Chicago, and Dr. Matthew Shapiro, a political scientist at the Illinois Institute of Technology, provided analysis and insight into the candidates’ responses to the first three questions. That alone took two hours, and the discussion was fantastic. The guys were so perfectly apolitical while really helping all of us understand what the answers meant in practical terms for science. Even if there had been no discussion, 50 people in Chicago who did not know about Science Debate 2008 or the questions and answers (and seven questions about women and minorities in STEM posed by the Association of Women in Science that followed) knew about them when the night was over. They could go online and read about what the candidates think before they headed to the polls. They had something new to think about. We’re going to continue what we started here, you can explore the links to learn more too, including Talking Science, which is a great site that will keep you thinking.

The thing that stood out to me on Sunday night the most was a comment from a friend of mine who works at a local museum (Chicago has really good museums). At some point we were talking about education, and having this super serious discussion, and she was encouraging the group not to discount the role of informal education in all this, and was asking where that factored in. I have always been in love with informal education-even though I’m wrapping up a Ph.D. now, it was those first trips to the local museum that really piqued my interest, and those first experiences of discovery learning a scientific principle that really turned me on and made me think that dedicating my life to studying the natural world was my cup of tea. And my friend, who is a thoughtful genius, got me thinking that fun is so important when you’re trying to reach people who aren’t into science or are intimidated by it. I’m not trying to make light of anything here, but it occurred to me as she was speaking that trips to museums take the intimidation factor out of science and pretty much rule if you’re trying to reach an audience-you’re not being graded, you’re there to have fun, it’s probably a weekend. She described museum visitors’ quick walk through an exhibit, and how she designs exhibits so that they get the point when they only read half of the information, and it really clicked for me-how do we make the discussion even more egalitarian? I’m all for using any means to reach people, and it’s dawning on me more and more that we have to keep looking for ways to reach folks who aren’t necessarily self-described science fans. My litmus test is whether my grandmother cares: a Jew from Atlanta, Georgia who, when I tried to tell her about my research (which I love) smiled at me sweetly with her hot pink lips, diamonds shining, blond hair glimmering, and said in her thick Southern drawl, “Sweetie, I’m really not interested.” Now I know that if she’s with me, I’m doing a decent job of reaching the non-science crowd.

Even if you don’t do it before the election, send your friends to the Science Debate site to read the questions. No matter who wins, the political outlook on science is reflected in those responses, and you can make up your mind about how comfortable you are with the next president’s ideas, and I’m betting good money that you’ll be inspired, if you aren’t already, to help the movement to put science back on the map with our political leaders.

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