Post-Debate Impressions

Why Aren’t the Candidates Talking More About Science and Technology?

Barack Obama and John McCain faced off in their last presidential debate this Wednesday, and by many measures, it was the most interesting of the three rumbles. The senators tackled the economy, healthcare, energy, and for the first time, abortion, education and the nomination of justices for the Supreme Court.

But since your time is precious and you can just flip on the TV to see what the talking heads on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox have to say about who won the debate, or how John McCain’s facial expressions are going to decide the future of this country, I’d like to comment specifically on the candidates’ positions on education in the context of one of Bob Schieffer’s questions:

Our country spends the most on education, but our standardized math and science scores lag well behind most other countries. What will the candidates do to close this gap and improve education in America?

Since we’re at MIT, math and science education is kinda’ important to us and maybe we should pay attention to what the candidates are saying about it. Last night, that was easy, because neither of the candidates addressed the issue of education in terms of America’s lagging math and science scores.

Both re-hashed their talking points on education — in a nutshell, McCain advocates for a competitive model, throwing education to the wolves of the free market (the same metaphorical wolves who brought the metaphorically broken, partially devoured carcass of our financial sector to the American people’s metaphorical doorstep), while Obama argued for a reform of No Child Left Behind and increased federal funding for schools.

True to form, both made very sure to not address the question directly, lest they accidentally provide an answer. Obama certainly could have though — his website specifically addresses that math and science scores should be a top priority in the American education scheme. Either Ctrl+F on Firefox isn’t working, or McCain’s section on education does not mention “math” or “science” once.

During the debate, Obama made a brief connection between education, the economy, and national security, but more needs to be said on the matter. The American economy and the outstanding role model the United States used to represent to the rest of the world depended largely on American innovation in science and technology. The renewable sources of energy that Obama and McCain “discuss” ad nauseum hinge on the same type of leaps and bounds in science and technology (some of those advances being made right at MIT).

In a very literal sense, the security of the United States is a direct function of our prowess in science and technology. Innovations like radar, computers, GPS, and Stark Industries’ Jericho missile are all vital components of a strong American military and all owe their development to research in science and technology, particularly at institutions such as MIT.

So why don’t the candidates like talking about this? Would it not play well with the American people? The people would rather hear confused responses about vouchers, No Child Left Behind and charter schools than hear about what’s really going to make our country strong?

Here’s my advice: the candidates should do everything they can to associate themselves with developments in science and technology (S&T, if you will). The debates would have been a great time to do this. The candidates could have connected the dots between national security, the economy, energy, climate change and education into a beautiful, interconnected web of promises with S&T at its core, and I totally would have bought it.

Plus, it’s an issue that plays well with both parties, so I would see no reason why either candidate wouldn’t try and capitalize on some S&T cred. What we saw Wednesday night shows that both candidates are missing the big picture. Stronger education in science and math means more innovations in technology which means more efficient sources of power and more effective ways to defend the country which means energy independence and job creation which means a strong economy.

It’s essentially that simple. The American people know this.

If either candidate reads this and is stuck on how to boost their S&T cred, here’s another suggestion: come to MIT and give a talk at Kresge. Please. That’d be so cool.

Ethan Solomon is a member of the Class of 2012.