Bruce Alberts left research and teaching in 1993 to become the 'education president' of the US National Academy of Sciences. In the 12 years of his tenure, he worked to improve US science and math education, understanding that public servants in government with scientific and technological expertise are essential intermediaries in conveying scientific advice to politicians.

Alberts asked his colleague Harold Varmus to serve on an advisory committee that studied the future of research funding. Despite his lack of administrative experience, Varmus was suggested for the directorship of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), a post in which he served from 1993 to 1999. During that time, he initiated many changes in both intramural and extramural research programs, recruited new leaders for a number of important positions at the NIH and helped to initiate the five-year doubling of the NIH budget. Varmus also turned out to be an adept public promoter of basic scientific research.

In 1999, Tom Cech became president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Together with Gerry Rubin, HHMI vice president, he is overseeing the creation of the Janelia Farm Research Campus, focused on developing technologies applicable to biomedical problems. Inspired by the collaborative atmosphere at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (Cambridge, UK), and at the Bell Labs (US), Janelia Farm will make space and resources available to visiting scientists, thus nurturing scientific exchange.

Ronald Plasterk, well known in the field of small RNAs, recently left his lab to join the government in the Netherlands as its education minister. In so doing, he will provide an invaluable link between the government and the scientific community, acting as a translator between two very different cultures. Although this may seem like an unusual step, it makes sense given Plasterk's long interest in politics and the communication of science to the public. Since 1999, he has been writing a weekly newspaper column (in de Volkskrant) and providing televised commentaries (on the show Buitenhof). He also coauthored the Labor party's election platform.

In an interview with Alison Abbott from Nature, when asked how to improve scientific quality, Plasterk answered, “Ask yourself why so many top physicists, including three Nobel prizewinners, ended up in Leiden 100 years ago? Or at the Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge? There is no blueprint for quality — top scientists will go where they can work best. We just need to provide sufficient funding to allow centers of excellence to emerge from within the community. And there is in fact more money for research foreseen in the government plan.”

If it is true that in the future, the best scientists will go where they can do the best work, where will that be? Although the US has enjoyed a comfortable position in the twentieth century, it is unclear whether it will continue to make the investments needed to make sure it remains competitive.

The US faces a crucial future skills gap in science and technology. In 2004, the US National Science Board ranked the US twentieth in the world for the percentage of 24-year-olds with college degrees in natural sciences or engineering. The National Academy of Sciences stated, “We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost — and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all.”

In a 2005 Science interview with Jeffrey Mervis, Bruce Alberts said “It seems likely to me that China or India will become the dominant scientific power. They take science seriously, their young people are hungry to learn it, and they have such large numbers of people.” Chinese educators talk about their “new national strategy” to make China an “innovation country” so that it will advance “into the rank of innovation-oriented countries by 2020”, says Shang Yong, China's vice minister of science and technology.

While China is pouring money into its universities, it is not possible to produce creative thinking merely by demanding it. Instead, one must provide an open environment where creativity and innovation can flourish. “One thing we know about creativity is that it typically occurs when people who have mastered two or more quite different fields use the framework in one to think afresh about the other”, said Marc Tucker, who heads the National Center on Education and the Economy in the US.

But what makes one place more conducive to innovation than another? Certainly money invested in science and education is an important part of the equation, but other factors are equally critical. The quality of education the next generation receives is essential to give them the knowledge and skills needed to drive innovation. That can be achieved only with higher levels of success across disciplines. The ability to recruit and keep the world's most talented people is also of key importance. By not giving visas to leading foreign scientists and thus sending foreign students to other countries, the US has severely limited the potential for scientific exchange in this country. Finally, it is important to create an environment where people are encouraged to think creatively and where risk-taking is rewarded.

The good news is that the race to become a vibrant and exciting place to do science is not a zero-sum game. Many nations can improve their competitiveness, and the ones who flourish will be those who develop the best broad-based education systems and recruit highly talented and creative people from around the world to do the most innovative research. In that regard, we all have our work cut out for us.