Almost all of the major challenges we will face as a nation in this new century, from the environment, national security and economic competitiveness to energy strategies, have a scientific or technological basis. Can a president who is not comfortable thinking about science hope to lead instead of follow? Earlier Republican debates underscored this problem. In May, when candidates were asked if they believed in the theory of evolution, three candidates said no. In the next debate Mike Huckabee explained that he was running for president of the U.S., not writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book, and therefore the issue was unimportant.
Apparently many Americans agreed with him, according to polls taken shortly after the debate. But lack of interest in the scientific literacy of our next president does not mean that the issue is irrelevant. Popular ambivalence may rather reflect the fact that most Americans are scientifically illiterate. A 2006 National Science Foundation survey found that 25% of Americans did not know the earth goes around the sun.
Our president will thus have to act in part as an “educator in chief” as well as commander in chief. Someone who is not scientifically literate will find it difficult to fill this role.
This summer in Aspen, Colo., a group of scientists, journalists and business people convened at a “science summit” to discuss ways to build a growing awareness of the importance of scientific issues in government. A working group was convened to explore ways that the scientific and business communities might work together to ensure that science becomes an issue in the 2008 campaign.