After the Storm

Interview / by TJ Kelleher /

An exclusive and revealing post mortem with President Bush's point man on science, John Marburger.

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Seed: Did America’s strategy on science as a soft power change at all over the past eight years?
JM: Many countries pursue science as soft power, but America is unique among nations in this respect. After World War II, the US alone had the remaining economic capacity to develop the opportunities presented by science. Consequently, the world sent its aspiring scientists to us. Because of that, we haven’t had to have a focused office of international science diplomacy. It is happening, and it is happening probably more powerfully than for any other country. Whenever I travel to other countries, I see colleagues and students of mine and other faculty. Now some of those students are getting a little old, and I’d like to see more and younger ones.

Seed: How does the US get more?
JM: It should be easier to get into the US as a student. And it should be easier to stay here and become a citizen if you want to, after you get an advanced degree. The president has some very interesting ideas about immigration, which are way out in front of his own party. I wish Democrats had supported them more strongly.

In any case, we’ve got soft diplomacy. We only have to avoid stepping on our own toes to let it work. By that I mean to be cautious about the post 9/11 provisions that we’ve made for homeland security. We really need to be careful about our openness to the world.

Seed: Has the US missed an opportunity to enhance American soft power by building something like the Large Hadron Collider?
JM: I don’t think so. The US is actually — in a way, unfortunately — dominating the science community at CERN. And the CERN people are a little bit uncomfortable about that. And anyway, that’s only one instrument. There are these lovely pictures of protein structures and glowing fish, for which two Americans just got the Nobel Prize. And you’ve got Hubble and the Mars rovers.

We have ongoing imaginative technological sagas that are capturing the world’s attention. The world doesn’t always connect them with the US, but the US is the primary player, even on questions like climate science. This is American science.

The biggest threat to that science is the inexorable growth of the mandatory budget for Social Security, Medicare, and other programs. The growth of the mandatory budget is squeezing everything. It is squeezing science, infrastructure, renewal. If not for that, we wouldn’t have all these priority decisions to make. We could double NIH and NSF and NASA and everything else in reasonable amount of time. But the fact is that our discretionary budget is not increasing at the same rate as our economy or the needs and aspirations of our society. We have got to do something about it.

Seed: Our magazine has advanced the idea that we must consider science not simply as a thing that we fund, but as a lens through which we should look at the world. Does the structure of science advice to government correlate with the place of science in the world?
JM: Yes, it does. This is an area of vast ignorance because the majority of people motivated to understand science policy and the structure of science advice are government employees. Those are the people who are motivated to understand this stuff. What they know — what the science community at large does not — is that the structure of science advice reflects the full panoply of government activities in a very sophisticated way. Most of what we do here is to coordinate this vast machinery of science in government so that it produces a coherent science program.

When I want to know what to tell the president, I go to NOAA, I go to NASA, I go to NSF, I go to the Department of Energy and bring the right guys in. If I want to learn about climate change, I go to Jim Hansen. Jim Hansen has his own personal point of view. He will tell you that it’s his own personal point of view that there’s a tipping point, that we can’t go over a certain atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. That’s fine. As long as he makes it clear that that’s his opinion, it’s fine with me. He’s a controversial person because he’s one of the few scientists who’s willing to state his opinion. It makes me a little nervous because of his authority as a scientist. Whenever science is recruited in the service of opinion, it makes me very nervous. Everybody wants to use the credibility of science to bolster their opinions. And I don’t like that. I try to avoid getting into that trap in this office.

Seed: Did you see President Bush ever change his mind based on the scientific evidence that you presented him?
JM: As far as I can tell, the president, as a matter of principle, doesn’t think it’s wise to defy nature. By the time I’ve arranged a presentation about something for the president, all science questions have been resolved. And he expects it. He would probably fire me if I permitted a science question to leak into his briefings. I’m there to make sure that his advisors and his agencies have consulted with the science community, and that all the science issues have been taken care of before anything gets to him.

Seed: Was there a dimension, an approach, or a philosophy held by the president’s other advisors that most commonly confronted your advice?
JM: I only give advice about science. I don’t give advice about politics or foreign affairs or economics or legal affairs. I stay out of those things. All of the issues that the president needs to decide are in those domains. They are not in my domain. The president doesn’t need to make decisions about science. Science does not tell you how to implement policies, except in rare cases. And the real tough part of governing is implementing.

I mean, the tough issues, about climate, for example, are not about whether the Earth is warming or whether it is caused by humans; the real question is how do you go about addressing the problem at a scale that is significant enough to make a difference.

Seed: Except if it takes an extra day or year or term to accept those scientific conclusions as foundational to economic or political strategy, doesn’t that seem to be in violation of the principles of science?
JM: The president has had a very practical approach to a response to climate change. In 2001, before I came to Washington, the president established the Federal Climate Science Program to punch up our knowledge and focus on the remaining uncertainties in the science, and he started an initiative in climate technology, which was the seed for lots of subsequent energy initiatives, including the most recent advanced energy initiative. The president reentered ITER, the international nuclear fusion program. He has encouraged the use of nuclear power. Those were decisions that were made by the president.

The president has not said that we have to wait until the certainties are resolved before we do something about climate change. He has actually said just the opposite. It is not easy for me to understand how the public discourse can get so off track as to hold that the president says, “Oh, let’s do more research, so we don’t have to take any action.”

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