Heather Wilson has something she wants the voters of New Mexico's first congressional district to know about her: unlike President George W. Bush, she supports embryonic stem-cell research. In a local television advertisement last month, Wilson told viewers in Albuquerque and its environs: “The president vetoed the stem-cell bill, and I voted to override his veto because it was the right thing to do.”

It is not that surprising for a candidate to say an unpopular president is wrong, or that a popular biomedical cause is right. It is rather more surprising when the candidate and the president are members of the same party. But Wilson, the only woman in Congress who has served in the military, is a moderate Republican in a close fight to keep her seat. The stem-cell issue is one that she thinks may help her in the struggle to a fifth term in the House of Representatives, despite the fact that in other parts of the country some of her fellow Republicans are making opposition to the research a strong part of their campaign.

Most of the time, American voters couldn't care less about science. “If you look at what people are hot and bothered about, it's health care, Iraq, taxes, education, things of that sort,” says Daniel Greenberg, a science-policy expert based in Washington DC. “Science and technology — they don't know anything about it.” (See 'Q&A', page 744.) As a result, there's not much room for science in the typical US campaign — including the upcoming 7 November mid-term elections, which will decide who holds all 435 seats in the House of Representatives; one-third of the Senate's 100 seats; and 36 governorships. “Science plays a very little role because facts play a very little role,” says Tony Massaro of the Washington-based League of Conservation Voters. “Issues, such as they are, are indicators for the values of the candidates.”

Some liberal groups think that the Bush administration's record on science can be seen as a reflection of its values. They hope to exploit this, painting a picture of an administration opposed to objective truth and intellectual progress. Over the past six years, activists have assembled a litany of issues where, they say, the Bush administration has either ignored scientific evidence or sought to manipulate it — from delayed decisions on the Plan B emergency contraceptive to altered documents on global warming. This 'Republican war on science', as it was called in the title of a 2005 book by journalist Chris Mooney, has proved a powerful rallying point for scientists disillusioned with the current administration. And there are many.

But despite the fervour of some of its devotees, there is little evidence that this radical thesis is having any more effect in this race than similar ideas had in the 2004 presidential election. Back then, a group of respected scientists, including two dozen Nobel laureates, publicly accused Bush of “misrepresenting and suppressing scientific knowledge” (see Nature 427, 663; 2004) and went on to support John Kerry's presidential bid. This year's race has seen the formation of a political advocacy group called Scientists and Engineers for America, which includes many of the same researchers.

Representative Heather Wilson has distanced herself from the president. Credit: J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP

The group says it will work to raise public awareness of perceived abuses of science, and hopes to persuade voters to elect like-minded candidates. But the way the organization is set up constrains it from endorsing any specific candidate in any specific election. And despite charges that it could be just a Democratic front, its leaders insist the group is nonpartisan. “There have been very strong advocates for science from both parties,” says founding member Peter Agre, a Nobel-prizewinning chemist and vice-chancellor for science and technology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. “This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. It's an American issue.”

John Marburger, President Bush's science adviser, agrees — and argues that the Bush administration has done a fine job of advancing various scientific initiatives. “Science has wide bipartisan support in this country,” he says. “Scientists benefit from that.” He points to the 'competitiveness initiative', meant to keep the United States at the forefront of science and technology, which is currently winding its way through the Republican-led Congress. If brought into effect, it would mean an 8% increase for the National Science Foundation's budget and a 15% boost to funds for the Department of Energy's Office of Science in 2007 (see Nature 439, 644–645; 2006).

Stem-cell research is popular with many voters... Credit: L. G. PATTERSON/AP

But if science as an overriding issue is hard pushed to gain traction, specific issues — in particular, stem cells and energy — could play an important role in some tight races. In a neck-and-neck national election, with the Democrats enjoying a lead in public opinion but requiring 15 seats to take control of the House and 6 seats to take control of the Senate, it's possible that the tactical use of these issues in specific races could make a difference.

Culture shock

Meanwhile, in various states, scientific issues are turning up on important ballot initiatives. In Missouri, a high-profile measure would amend the state constitution to protect stem-cell research (see 'Running on science'). In California, leading researchers are pushing for a clean-energy ballot initiative that would put more than $1 billion towards research on alternative energy sources (see 'Good times for green energy'). These initiatives do not necessarily lend themselves to the big-picture analysis of a 'war on science', but they should reveal how Americans are thinking about various ways in which research can have a practical impact on their lives. And that could, perhaps, influence candidates as they begin strategizing for the presidential race of 2008.

...and Kerry Healey hopes to profit from that popularity in Massachusetts. Credit: N. LANE/AP

More so than any other line of research, stem cells have brought candidates from both parties to the front lines of science. Wilson is far from the only Republican now distancing herself from Bush on the issue. “You won't see any Republicans in competitive races touting the fact that they supported Bush on human embryonic stem-cell research,” says Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a Washington-based advocacy group that supports the research. “A lot of candidates recognize that it plays into real weaknesses for Bush and his party.”

In several governors' races, Republican candidates are reaching the same conclusion, sometimes moving to support generous state funding for stem-cell research. In Maryland, governor Robert Ehrlich stood quietly by in April 2005 as a bill providing $25 million in research funds for such research died in the face of conservative opposition in the state legislature. But this January, he came out vocally in support of the work, and in April he signed into law a bill providing $15 million in state funding.

In Massachusetts, lieutenant governor Kerry Healey (Republican) has been at pains to show her support for stem-cell research in her bid to become governor. In August, she broke publicly with the current governor when his administration announced a restrictive interpretation of a 2005 state law governing stem-cell research. A spokesman for Healey called the rules a “mistake” that “could have a chilling effect on those individuals at the forefront of this emerging field”.

In some states, the issue is economic as well as political. Jim Doyle, the incumbent Democratic governor of Wisconsin, has pointed at his challenger's congressional vote against expanded federal funding for stem-cell work. Doyle has also emphasized his own role in bolstering research in the state where human embryonic stem cells were first isolated. That's a canny strategy in a state that is “terrified that it's losing jobs and people, and needs biotechnology”, says Arthur Caplan, director of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, who has advised several Democratic and Republican campaigns on stem cells. “It's an economic argument dressed up in a stem-cell costume.”

In other states, though, Republicans are using opposition to stem-cell research as a traditional pro-life values issue. In the Missouri senate race (see 'Running on science') Republican incumbent Jim Talent hopes that opposition to a stem-cell measure on the state ballot will increase turnout among the conservative voters he needs.

Politicians know that stem-cell issues appeal to many voters. So does the promise of 'energy independence', a catch-phrase that promises no more reliance on foreign oil. Voters have been put off by the ongoing war in Iraq and unrest in the Middle East, as well as record-high oil and gas prices this summer, although these have eased somewhat in recent months. “Usually, we are fighting to get issues up in the forefront,” says Massaro. “This year, everyone is thinking and talking about energy.” Many gubernatorial candidates, including Wisconsin's Doyle and Ted Kulongoski, Democratic governor of Oregon, are advancing some version of the '25 by 25' pledge — the broad-based push to produce 25% of the country's energy from renewable sources by 2025.

The issue has come into play in closely fought Senate races as well — and again on both sides of the partisan divide. In Washington state, Democratic senator Maria Cantwell is posing with wind turbines even as her Republican opponent proclaims his support for heavy investment in alternative energy. In Tennessee, Democratic candidate Harold Ford runs adverts wherein he strides across fields of soya beans grown for biofuel. In New Jersey, Republican challenger Tom Kean says that, “unlike President Bush”, he doesn't think America can “drill its way to energy independence”.

The interest in energy issues runs deep. Earlier this year, the liberal citizens' group MoveOn.org staged more than 1,000 house parties, asking attendees to name the issues they thought the group should press hard on for the elections. “There were just two issues that came up at every one of those house parties,” says Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn's political action committee. “One was health care and one was energy.” For Pariser, the issue is about more than oil prices and geopolitics: “There is this sense of a grand scientific exploration in the style of the campaign to put a man on the Moon. People are hungry right now to be asked to be part of a big project.”

The push towards using clean energy sources, such as biofuel derived from crops, has been used by some candidates to woo floating voters. Credit: A. MANIS/AP

But some routes towards energy independence involve extracting non-renewable energy sources — such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a plan pushed heavily by Ted Stevens, a Republican senator from Alaska. The drive for energy independence shouldn't eclipse the message of preparing for climate change, argues Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC. “Unless you work in the global-warming message as well, there are some proposals — such as turning coal into liquid fuel — that could wreak havoc with the environment,” he says. “You have to bring in the longer-term fossil-fuel dependence as well.”

Climate change offers less political mileage than energy independence. That may reflect the current American view: in June, a poll conducted on a number of issues by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that, although 64% of respondents thought energy policy was “very important” to them, only 44% said the same of global warming. Nevertheless, in tight governors' races in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, candidates have divergent stances on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a seven-state scheme for limiting greenhouse-gas emissions.

Capitol gains

Back in Washington DC, where several powerful representatives have notoriously sceptical views on climate change, the elections could significantly shift the balance of who gets listened to the most. If the Democrats take back either house of Congress, the chairmanship of all committees will switch from Republicans to Democrats. And chairmen and chairwomen have the power to call hearings on topics of particular interest — or to call witnesses such as novelist Michael Crichton to criticize the current state of climate-change research, as happened last year in the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works.

If Republicans lose control of the House, accusations of scientific politicization could gain a higher profile. “I think there would be more investigations if the House changes,” says Kurt Gottfried, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For instance, California Representative Henry Waxman — a Democrat who has been active in pursuing conflict-of-interest issues at the National Institutes of Health and other agencies — is in line to gain the chairmanship of the House Committee on Government Reform.

Representative Bart Gordon (Democrat, Tennessee), meanwhile, is in line to gain control of the House Committee on Science if the House switches majority. As such, he might call hearings on the accusations of scientific censorship at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says Joel Widder, a policy adviser at the lobby group Lewis-Burke Associates in Washington DC. “The politicization of science and politics affecting scientific decision-making would clearly be issues that he would explore,” Widder says. If the Republicans maintain the majority, the same committee might be headed by former Democrat Ralph Hall of Texas, global-warming sceptic Dana Rohrabacher of California or physicist Vernon Ehlers of Michigan.

Which party wins may also influence how science budgets are distributed among agencies and across disciplines, as Congress is in charge of doling out money for scientific research. But the total pot of money for science isn't likely to grow, as the United States continues to struggle to pay for the war in Iraq and unexpected expenses such as Hurricane Katrina, on top of a growing deficit. “It's not like the Democrats are going to open the treasury and fix all the budget problems that all the science agencies are screaming about,” says Widder. “I think that the budget environment is likely to be so constrained that it doesn't matter who's in charge.”

No matter what happens on 7 November, the face of US science is likely to change. And on 8 November, campaigners from both parties will be picking themselves up, preparing for the new Congress to convene in January — and realizing it's never too early to start planning for 2008.