A fresh start beckons for the politics of US science.
The United States is approaching a potential turning point for many disgruntled scientists. On 7 November, voters will go to the polls to elect most of their congressional representatives. Many observers foresee at least a partial shift in power, with the Democratic party regaining control of one or both of the houses of Congress. If that happens, the election could set the stage for some significant changes in US science policy.
It is simplistic to regard the Democrats as more 'pro-science' than the Republicans. It is true that academics usually lean to the left, and that scientists have a long history of liberal activism. But Republicans have a strong track record in boosting funding for science, leading the push to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health and, more recently, proposing an increase for the physical sciences in the federal budget for the next fiscal year (see Nature 439, 644–645; 2006). Slogans such as the 'Republican war on science', meant to sum up a host of perceived abuses, do not do justice to the complex relationship between science and each of the two major political parties.
Still, the Republican administration of President George W. Bush has come under plenty of fire for its approach to science. Groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists have charged it with delaying or tampering with scientific decisions. Prominent examples include the Food and Drug Administration's reluctance to make a decision on the Plan B emergency contraceptive pill, against the advice of its own advisory panels, and White House officials editing parts of an Environmental Protection Agency document dealing with climate change.
Now the opportunity arises for scientific groups to start concentrating on how to build better relations with the next administration, which will be elected in two years. As a former adviser to President Clinton suggests on page 751, there are some concrete steps that scientists can take if they wish to influence how the next president approaches science.
Researchers should be considering how their own areas of expertise — be it biosecurity, chemical physics or environmental toxicology — can most effectively be incorporated into national policy. They should identify who obtains positions and chairs on relevant congressional committees and open a dialogue with them. They can also develop relationships with other groups with whom they have common interests.
The United States is blessed with an immensely deep reservoir of scientific talent that can, all else being equal, be applied to furthering the national interest. Over the past few years, some communities of scientists have felt that their input is unwelcome in Washington. Specialists in embryonic stem-cell research, for example, have been denied federal funding for work on any new cell lines. Many have resorted to parallel, administratively awkward private or state-funded laboratories; some have even moved abroad. Weapons physicists and specialists in non-proliferation have lost much of their influence. Climate scientists with mainstream views on global warming have been accused of political bias. These are only a few of the areas in which researchers are feeling frustrated by the current administration and its supporters in Congress.
Political leaders will always seek to use science to further their own ends. The political reception to last week's Lancet paper estimating that some 650,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the US-led invasion (see page 728) is just one example of the impossibility of a clean divide between science and politics. But US scientists should now be working constructively to develop an improved relationship with the new Congress — whatever its political composition.