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Which science book should the next US president read?

Science, Money, and Politics

(Univ. Chicago Press, 2001)

What a president needs to understand is not science — which science, after all? — but the role of scientific expertise in the democratic political process. Daniel S. Greenberg is the outstanding writer on the politics of modern US science, and this is his most pertinent book. He takes for granted that the institutional framework for mobilizing and channelling scientific expertise works fairly well and should not be subject to cynical subversion. But he also understands that scientists enter a political arena when they advise, and presidents must take decisions that reflect social and political priorities. Scientists, like anyone else, must hope that presidents have good priorities. No book of biology, physics or meteorology will ensure that they do. Steven Shapin

The Blind Watchmaker

(W. W. Norton, 2006; first published by Longman, 1986)

There is a crisis in scientific literacy in the United States: only 25% of Americans accept our evolution from ape-like ancestors, yet 74% believe in angels. Republicans make it worse by proposing that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public-school science classes. Anyone aspiring to be president should have a basic acquaintance with evolution and with the masses of evidence that it's not just a theory, but a fact. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species comes to mind, but it is outdated and written in turgid Victorian prose that is uncongenial to modern readers. Future US leaders should read a short, popular work that lays out the evidence for evolution and dispels the spectres of creationism and intelligent design without dwelling on religion. Sadly, no book fills this niche. My attempt, Why Evolution is True (Viking, 2009), will be published only after the election. Until then, I suggest Richard Dawkins's brilliant exposition of natural selection. If a presidential candidate doesn't accept evolution after reading this book, there is no hope. Jerry Coyne

Microbe Hunters

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002; first published by Harcourt, 1939)

Without question, the next president should read Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif. Probably more bioscientists and physicians have been stimulated to adopt their careers after reading this captivating book than any other. It is easy to read but still relevant, and might help a president to understand the life sciences and the commitment of life scientists to their work. Rita Colwell

The Evolution of Cooperation

(Basic Books, 1984)

The next US leader should be concerned by the instability of intelligent life, so Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (Rodale, 2006) is a good choice. Dinosaurs hung on for some 160 million years, but how long will humans survive? We are causing such irreversible ecosystem destruction that we will eliminate our own habitat. Technological advances alone cannot fix the problem. To reach a solution, humans must cooperate on a global scale, requiring us to show wisdom, generosity and respect. A classic from which we may all learn is Robert Axelrod's book. Martin Nowak


(Hybrid Vigor Press, 2006)

In these uncertain times, the presidential incumbent might be less well served by all the good news about science. As a cure for complacency, recall that the mathematics of finance has been corrupted by being put at the service of fantasy and greed in the economic crisis that is now gripping the United States. Mathematics has enabled assets to be given fictitious valuations that even now threaten catastrophe. Scientific research in the service of industry and the state is not immune to such pressures. A cautionary tale is told by Denise Caruso in Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet. Her story is one-sided, but it is well researched and she recommends a feasible system of risk analysis. The book will alarm some and anger others, but the debate is urgently needed. Jerry Ravetz

Undermining Science

(Univ. California Press, 2006)

Seth Shulman argues that George W. Bush's science policies recall those of Trofim Lysenko under Josef Stalin. The details are not pretty, the reporting is thorough and the evidence has not been credibly contested. Republican candidate John McCain might read it to see the extent to which neoconservative infrastructure is already in place in US science agencies, making it easier for him to continue the same policies without seeming to. His record on some science issues has been good, but his recent opinions, from energy to creationism in schools, have been drifting towards those of Bush. Democrat candidate Barack Obama might use Shulman's book to discover which recent science-agency appointees passed the test of right-wing fealty rather than that of scientific objectivity, thereby suggesting where he might make replacements. But such a task will not be easy. Shulman reports that the present administration has so thoroughly sown loyalists of questionable competence into science bodies — from NASA to the US Weights and Measures division — that it will take a considerable effort to root them out. Kevin Padian

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Shapin, S., Coyne, J., Colwell, R. et al. Which science book should the next US president read?. Nature 455, 466–467 (2008).

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