A plan to hold a presidential debate on science and technology issues in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, next week has failed. Now organizers hope to stage the event on 9 May in Oregon. But with candidates careful to avoid missteps, that plan faces tough odds.
Launched in December, ScienceDebate2008 is a grass-roots movement to hold a national discussion on science and technology issues, including stem cell research, climate change, and science education. Dozens of the nation's science organizations are behind it, including the American Chemical Society, the American Society of Plant Biologists, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes ScienceNOW. At the AAAS annual meeting in February, representatives for senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) said the candidates would consider attending the debate (ScienceNOW, 16 February). It was to be held 18 April at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, 4 days before the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania.
But last month, Obama's campaign backed out, and the Clinton and McCain campaigns have not said what they will do. So organizers scrapped the Philadelphia date and announced the Oregon plan, with details on the venue to come. Public television shows NOVA and NOW are sponsoring the event, in hopes that the promise of television coverage will attract the candidates. "I'm very hopeful," says debate organizer Matthew Chapman, a screenwriter who has worked on science-related projects. "These issues are just too important to ignore."
Political scientist Joseph Lowndes of the University of Oregon, Eugene, is skeptical that the May event will happen, however. It may have come too late in the campaign cycle to attract candidates who might earlier have sought the attention. "They are now well-defined commodities," he says. And Arizona Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate, may be eager to avoid the issue of human embryonic stem cells, which could fracture his political support.
If the Oregon debate falls through, Chapman hopes to try to set yet another debate over the summer. Failing that, organizers plan to submit questions to the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has already announced dates and locations for three debates this fall once both parties' nominees are named.