Nearly two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson said, “Science is my passion; politics, my duty.” 48 Nobel Laureates took this to heart in their public endorsement of John Kerry in the run up to the US election. Whichever way the vote goes, there will be significant implications for the wider scientific community.

It comes as little surprise that both Bush and Kerry promise to support scientific research funding and education in schools for the next generation, high- tech work force. Both highlight energy as a crucial issue – with Bush pushing clean coal and hydrogen as future fuels. The two are divided over global warming, however; Kerry promises to take the US back to the Kyoto negotiating table, while Bush remains firmly skeptical. Kerry is taking a strong stance on two prominent issues: to lift Bush's ban on stem- cell research and overturn his decision on storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. While both candidates promise wider access to broadband, Kerry also pledges to focus efforts on nanotechnology, biotechnology, and advanced manufacturing. In a statement that may surprise many outside the US, Kerry vows to “once again make America the world leader in science”. But perhaps he has been reading the National Science Board's (NSB) biennial report, Science and Engineering (S&E) Indicators 2004, which paints an uncertain picture of the future of science in the US.

There is no arguing that the country has an enviable position as the world's leader in science: in 2001, it accounted for 44% of the combined R&D funding of the 30 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); generated one- third of the world's research articles; and had a 33% share of global high- tech markets, holding the highest market share in four of the five sectors (Europe's lead in pharmaceuticals being the only exception). However, in recent years non- OECD countries, particularly China, the Russian Federation, and Taiwan, have increased their R&D spend relative to OECD members; Western Europe has overtaken the US in the total number of S&E articles, while output from China, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan is growing rapidly; and although the US has maintained a steady grip on high- tech manufacturing, Asia is making headway.

The scientific work force also presents a challenge. Unlike Japan and many European nations, who have aging and declining populations, the US is growing. Europe and Japan are taking active measures to tempt scientists and engineers from abroad, encourage their own nationals to return, and attract new groups such as women and minorities. The issues for the US are rather different, since it has traditionally relied on foreign- born scientists and engineers to fuel its S&E engine. But 9/11 security concerns surrounding visas and the growth of new economies in China and Asia have curtailed this resource. NSB chair Warren M. Washington believes that the US must look elsewhere. “We have benefited from minimal competition in the global S&E labor market, but attractive and competitive alternatives are now expanding around the world. We must develop more fully our native talent,” he says.

By the time you read this, it will be Bush or Kerry's responsibility to address these issues.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(04)00477-8