updated 8/19/2004 9:58:32 PM ET 2004-08-20T01:58:32

Organizations representing the nation’s 3 million scientists, engineers and doctors have invited both presidential candidates to have a word with them — online.

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The invitation to two “virtual town hall” sessions comes in the middle of a tight race in which scientists have been energized by the debate over stem-cell research.

The presidential campaigns would choose the locations for their separate town halls, planned for September or October, and would open with a 15-minute explanation of their science, engineering and technology policies. Scientists, gathered at universities and centers around the nation, would view the session via the Internet and send questions by e-mail.

“We note that the science and engineering community is represented in large numbers in states such as Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon and Pennsylvania,” says the invitation, endorsed by 49 sponsors.

Organizers point out that counties with high numbers of scientists and engineers also have high percentages of registered voters, such as 91 percent in Los Alamos, N.M., home to a national lab.

“This is a voting group whose voices ought to be heard,” said Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, which helped to organize the sessions.

Staffers for Democratic nominee John Kerry said he would be eager to participate.

“He wants to discuss the issues. And he wants to discuss science and technology,” said Sarah Bianchi, national policy director for the Kerry campaign.

Terry Holt, Bush campaign national spokesman, had no comment because he had not seen the invitation.

Kerry has promised to reverse President Bush’s ban on federal funding for research on embryonic stem cell lines developed after Aug. 9, 2001.

Bianchi said Kerry would allow scientists to study leftover embryos that had been created for infertility treatment and would otherwise be discarded.

Kerry is “absolutely not” suggesting creating embryos for the sole purpose of research, Bianchi said. About 400,000 potential stem cell lines are estimated to exist at infertility labs.

Bush says his stance balances science with ethical concerns raised by the research.

“The president does not support the creation of embryonic stem cells for the sake of their destruction,” Holt said.

Political observers say of the range of science and medical topics, the stem-cell issue has the most traction among voters. Other likely topics of discussion at the virtual session include human exploration of Mars, climate science and funding levels for scientific powerhouses like the National Institutes of Health.

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