Politicians don’t usually talk about science policy on the campaign trail. One advocacy group thinks they should.

It’s Never Too Early to Talk Science Policy on the Campaign Trail

Now that Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has announced that Ken Salazar, the former Secretary of the Interior for the Obama administration, will lead a team of advisors aimed at helping Clinton build her administration should she win the presidency, the question of who will be nominated to head key cabinet positions is front and center. Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, for example, could be a contender for the top energy job under Clinton, Greenwire reports.

Politicians don’t usually talk about science policy on the campaign trail. One advocacy group thinks they should.

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But other science-related positions and policy questions — from NASA funding to cancer research — have so far received little attention on the campaign. That’s a mistake according to Shawn Otto, co-founder of ScienceDebate, an effort that is trying to stimulate discussion of science during the election cycle.

In order to best position a future administration on science policy, these sorts of issues must be raised before a candidate is sworn in, Otto says. That’s what happened in 2008, he says, when President Obama formed a science advisory committee while still on the campaign trail, thanks in part to efforts by ScienceDebate. Assembling those people enabled Obama, once sworn in, to start forming science policy immediately, Otto suggests.

“It was the first time,” said Otto, “that a president went into office with a fully-formed science policy position, ready to hit the ground.”

Otto credits this expedited science agenda to his efforts with ScienceDebate, at least partially. During the 2008 election, he and his team pressured the campaign teams for both Obama and his Republican rival, John McCain, to pay attention to science and technology issues. The work paid off for the winning candidate. By stimulating Obama to start thinking about issues like cancer research and space exploration, advisors like Harold Varmus, Gilbert Ommen, Sharon Long, Peter Agre, and Donald Lamb were soon selected with expertise in those areas.

Once President Obama was elected, some of those advisors were tapped to help form policy and, in the case of Varmus, head-up top agencies like the National Cancer Institute.

Stimulating political discussion over scientific issues begins with reaching a consensus over which themes to highlight, explains Otto. ScienceDebate brought together more than 50 scientific organizations to get behind 20 questions believed to be a priority this election season. They cover topics like computer privacy and security, climate change, federal funding for research, public health and vaccinations, and addressing the opioids crisis.

These issues are not too complicated for the American voter, Otto contends. “They can take in incredibly complex information if it’s presented in the context of a policy dialogue. They can weigh in at the ballot box on these issues as well.” But it’s up to researchers themsleves to stand up for the issues, Otto says, because ignoring these issues can have consequences.

“Scientists and engineers need to realize that,” he said, “and need to do much more to participate in the public dialogue. The days of just worrying about your citations and your next grant are over.”

After all, those issues might not matter if the next administration cuts funding to your field.