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Obama and Romney Debate Science... Sort of

Megan Scudellari

The two presidential candidates provide written answers to questions on 14 scientific issues.

On Tuesday, grassroots organization posted answers from the two 2012 U.S. presidential candidates President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney to 14 Top American Science Questions concerning the scientific issues of our time. Some responses provided a rare insight into issues that are not normally discussed during political campaigns—such as biosecurity, ocean health, and food supply—yet many answers were not complete or dodged entirely, says Shawn Otto, organizer of the debate.

The two presidential candidates provide written answers to questions on 14 scientific issues. Source: Wikipedia

Science Debate first debuted during the 2008 presidential campaign. “We noticed that none of the candidates for president, or really any major political office, were talking about big science issues,” said Otto, a science writer and political consultant. He and a team of five others—two screenwriters, a philosopher, and two scientists—launched a petition calling for a national science debate. Although that petition rapidly garnered 38,000 signatures, the 2008 candidates refused to an oral science debate. “They didn’t want to be put on the spot over facts or figures,” said Otto. Eventually, the candidates agreed to respond to a set of questions in writing.

This year, Otto and the Science Debate team, including co-sponsors the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Council on Competitiveness, repeated the process. They received thousands of questions from individuals, then spent months whittling the list down to 14 pertinent issues, including innovation, the future of federally funded research, and pandemics and biosecurity.

When the 2012 candidate’s answers were published Tuesday, heavy traffic crashed the site, and readers were temporarily re-routed to the Scientific American website.

The answers this year were sometimes specific, often evasive, and occasionally contrasting. Obama and Romney appeared to most sharply disagree on climate change. While Obama touted several of his administration’s policies that have attempted to address “one of the biggest issues of this generation,” Romney cited “a lack of scientific consensus on the issue.”

When asked about maintaining American innovation, Obama said he is “committed to doubling funding for key research agencies,” though he does not cite what those agencies are, and Romney pointed to fixing immigration, tax reform, and reducing regulation.

Both candidates skirted the issue of vaccination enforcement. “They provided platitudes about public health, but didn’t really talk about the question,” said Otto.

Slate called Romney the winner of the debate, saying his answers were “substantive, specific, and detailed” while Obama’s were “vague, repetitive…and poorly written.” Other readers pointed to Romney’s denial of climate change science and argued that the presidential hopeful still has a lot to learn about science. But you can decide for yourself by reading the candidates’ answers at

Meanwhile, Otto and the Science Debate team continue to call on the candidates to have an oral debate about scientific issues. “This year’s debate answers on the website really illustrate why it is important that there is [an oral] debate,” said Otto. “A lot of their answers really are not complete, and a face-to-face debate would allow for a more pointed, more thoughtful exchange.”

Science Debate has also sent a shortened questionnaire to 34 members of Congress, including the party leaders and ranking members on House and Senate committees that made science-related decisions. To date, they have received answers from only two of the 34: Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA).