Must Our Next President Be Scientifically Literate?

Laurence Krauss, a noted physicist at Case Western Reserve University, argues in today's WSJ that the next President must be scientifically literate, a standard some candidates could not meet.

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. . . .

Even if the American public is not currently focused on these concerns, decisions made by the next U.S. president on issues such as climate change, energy research, stem cells and nuclear proliferation will have a global impact. We owe it to the next generation to take ownership of these issues now. In spite of the ambivalence reflected in some polls, there is a popular understanding that science and technology will be essential to meet the challenges we face as a society. When reports began to surface warning that the avian flu might become a threat to humans, for example, everyone from the president down called for studies to determine how quickly the virus might mutate from birds to human beings. No one suggested that "intelligent design," for example, could provide answers.

Krauss has joined with a group of prominent scientists calling for a presidential debate focused on science and technology issues, ScienceDebate2008.

Krauss' article does not make the erroneous claim that science "answers" pressing policy questions, a mistake others make (see here and here). Rather, he is arguing that scientific literacy is necessary to understand certain policy challenges, evaluate options, and develop solutions. A scientifically literate and technologically capable workforce is also important for American competitiveness. Whether a science-focused debate is necessary, the next administration should be comfortable consulting scientific expertise and recognizing the valuable role science can play in the development of public policy.