Every New Year is an occasion for celebration, tinged with uncertainty. This year begins with financial markets in a particularly uncertain state, with no banker or citizen quite certain what fresh crisis lurks around the corner.

One thing we can be sure of is that all of us — from Maryland to Mozambique — will be hearing plenty during 2008 about an unusually open election for the next president of the United States. By this time next year, a new person will be set to assume that role, with major ramifications for scientists, as for everybody else.

Two major science-related issues — the rules for the conduct of embryonic stem-cell research, and society’s response to climate change — are likely to feature fairly prominently in the run-up to the 4 November election. A host of secondary science and technology issues, such as agency budgets (see page 2) and whether the United States embarks on ambitious technology-policy initiatives in a bid to bolster its industrial competitiveness, will hinge on the election’s outcome.

The process by which the two main parties select their candidates kicks off at the Iowa caucuses today. One interesting aspect is that several candidates offer approaches on these major issues that are not normally associated with their respective parties (see page 4)

This diversity is particularly striking among the Republicans, where the race remains extraordinarily wide open. For example, Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona), unlike most in his party, has long championed decisive action to confront climate change. Two of his leading rivals, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, are supportive of federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research. The leading candidates on the Democrat side are less diverse in their views. Whether that signifies a party that is healthily united or unhealthily moribund is for the voters to decide.

Election year offers a chance for scientists who aspire to a direct role in the political process to make their voices heard. Prompted by seven years of what they see as manipulation of scientific findings by the Bush administration, groups are trying to raise the profile of science in the upcoming campaign. An organization called Scientists and Engineers for America plans to launch a project tracking the science- and health-related votes of all members of Congress, plus challengers for their seats as well as the presidential candidates. Meanwhile, dozens of prominent scientific leaders have mounted a push for a ‘Science Debate 2008’, calling for a candidates’ debate on science and technology issues.

It’s a laudable idea, and even if the prospects of such a debate are rather remote, the campaign can play a useful role in raising the profile of important issues as the election unfolds. For it is now — while candidates are striving to win their respective party nominations — that their priorities, preferences and policy teams will be forged. Many researchers, of all political stripes, are deeply troubled by what they regard as the dysfunctional relationship between science and the outgoing Bush administration. There is a better chance of a more fruitful relationship arising next time round if scientists get involved early with the candidates, and with the energetic, nationwide public debate that already characterizes this most intense and open of primary seasons.