Whether face-to-face with a president or prime minister, or participating in public consultations, scientists interacting with politics must cope with two major challenges. They are likely to encounter a degree of unfamiliarity with science and the way it works that requires all their skills to convey crisply what they know in a way best attuned to their listeners. At the same time they will soon realize that those with whom they are engaging are not only in the driving seat but often have constraints, values and goals that the scientists need to understand and, where appropriate, to which they must adapt.

Throughout history, individual scientists have found themselves in direct dialogue with politicians, and have encountered the full range of acceptance, hostility, knowledge deficits, political judgement and dilemmas. Some find themselves in discussion with other stakeholders in assessing policy issues. The recent UK nanotechnology dialogues (see Nature 448, 1–2; doi:10.1038/448001b 2007) illustrated the virtues of engagement in a number of local contexts. They also showed how much both scientists and others can learn from such engagements, whether about the realities of African villages, public values or what science itself may be able to contribute.

Whether in planning future agriculture (see page 518) or in responding to potential disasters, scientists find themselves increasingly involved in political processes. This is as it should be. And not all scientists are 'natural'. Social scientists can also bring a great deal to the table, in analysing people's attitudes and behaviours.

Nature will fully explore these sorts of engagements in a series of essays, 'Science and politics', launched this week by Richard Garwin (see page 543). His account of the decline in mechanisms for providing the US government with scientific advice is pessimistic, if all too timely. More upbeat is next week's dispatch from Hans Wigzell about the changes he wrought to stem-cell policy-making in Sweden by enthusing ministers about research. And we promise that the series will end with a sense of confident affirmation of the virtues of rationality. Mindful of President Harry S. Truman's advice, scientists need to stay in the kitchen, recognizing how hot it can get.