Page last updated at 16:01 GMT, Tuesday, 16 September 2008 17:01 UK

The presidents' guide to science

By James van der Pool
BBC Horizon

Barack Obama (L) and John McCain in New York (11/09/2008)
Neither John McCain nor Barack Obama has a scientific education

In just a matter of weeks, the title "most powerful person on Earth" will change hands.

Whether it is Barack Obama or John McCain who makes it to the White House, the decisions the president of the United States makes can influence the future of humanity for decades.

Science and technology in large part provide the president's immense power - whether to choose to prosecute a war, save millions from disease or launch a mission to Mars.

But like most US presidents - and indeed heads of government around the world - neither candidate has a science education. Mr McCain went to naval academy, while Mr Obama graduated in political science before training as a lawyer.

This mismatch of expectation to ability is neatly summed up in one of veteran Washington correspondent Daniel Greenberg's reports.

As President Richard Nixon awarded the prestigious National Science Medal to a group of scientists, he was heard to say: "I have read the citations and I want you to know that I do not understand them, but I want you to know, too, that because I do not understand them, I realise how enormously important their contributions are to this nation."


Whilst Nixon may have genuflected, more recent presidents have displayed a less exalted view of science.

The British Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse, now residing in the US, complains that President George W Bush was in office for more than a year before appointing a science adviser.

In order not to believe in evolution you must either be ignorant, stupid or insane
Professor Richard Dawkins
He argues: "Not only does that show little interest in science, it means he wasn't being properly informed about how science is interacting with all the important political issues of the day."

Mr Bush has been heavily criticised for underplaying what many scientists believed to be overwhelming evidence for global warming.

And while the 2005 Energy Policy Act might have countered that, by promoting bio-fuels, many complained that it was not only inadequate but ill-advised.

The act rewards farmers for increasing production of bio-fuels at the cost of producing food crops.

The result? Critics claim that bio-fuels are a major factor in the global food crisis and - while still relying on petroleum based fertilisers - have little effect in reducing carbon emissions.

War choices

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tours the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in Iran (file image)
Presidents need good scientific advice on potential security threats
Global warming is not the only threat to global security for which we may hope the new president gets the best scientific advice.

In the run-up to the election, the question of Iran's nuclear ambitions has been used to litmus test each candidate's military mettle.

Mr Obama has signalled "diplomacy without conditions" while Mr McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, gave her affirmation that she "will not blink" when faced with confrontation.

But what about the scientific advice and military intelligence that will inform any president's decisions and will allow them, for instance, to interpret how close Iran is to building a nuclear bomb?

Grasping this kind of technical detail is important, according to physicist Michio Kaku.

"What a president has to know is the amount of uranium necessary to set off a Hiroshima-type bomb… how long it would take, what kind of infrastructure you'd need and how much money it would take to assemble," states Mr Kaku, before adding: "This is the stuff for which nations go to war."

'Bizarre' protocol

Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin speaks in Anchorage, Alaska (13/09/2008)
Sarah Palin has argued for creationism to be taught in schools
But if there is one issue that clearly divides politicians and voters in the United States it is evolution.

While the presidential candidates are broadly accepting of Darwin's theory, Sarah Palin has advocated teaching both creationism and evolution in schools.

Her appointment has brought Mr McCain both votes and opprobrium.

Unsurprisingly, one of the fiercest critics of the anti-evolutionary stance adopted by some US religious and political leaders is Professor Richard Dawkins.

To his mind "the evidence for evolution is so strong that in order not to believe in evolution you must either be ignorant, stupid or insane".

Prof Dawkins is not merely point scoring. He is concerned that a failure to accept evolution alters our conception of life, which in turn has an impact on medical science - particularly embryonic stem cells.

This is absolutely text book stuff of how not to get politics engaged with science
Sir Paul Nurse
Nobel laureate
Whatever one makes of Mr Dawkins' view, the conflict between science and religion over stem cells has had a direct impact on researchers.

Most notably with the introduction of a research protocol Sir Paul considers so bizarre, he describes it as "Alice in Wonderland".

Since 2001, researchers have been forbidden from using government funding on deriving new embryonic stem cells. Yet this same funding can be used for research on cells derived before the legislation came in and for cells derived with private finance.

As a result, Sir Paul's laboratory is equipped with two sets of identical equipment, each bearing a label for what it can or cannot be used.

"This is close to the lunatic asylum," argues Sir Paul, before lamenting: "This is absolutely text book stuff of how not to get politics engaged with science."

So when it comes to the next president, the message from the science community appears to be "could do better".

Horizon: The President's Guide to Science is on BBC 2 on Tuesday 16 Sept at 2100BST then for seven days at BBC iPlayer.

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