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: Why do you think the public holds the belief that it does?
JM: That’s actually a science question. I’ve read a wonderful book called Predictably Irrational, by Daniel Ariely, that addresses this. This is something marketing people, political consultants, and politicians know about, almost instinctively: informational cascades. Scientists, I think, are particularly vulnerable to the informational cascade phenomenon. They know who the good scientists are, and when a good scientist says something, the others tend to say, “Gee, I know he is smart or she is smart, so what he’s saying must be right.” So it doesn’t take too much to tilt a community like this toward a mythology or a mistaken impression. In the absence of some strong rebuttal, I think it is likely to take root in the media environment that we have today.

Seed: Have you ever been troubled by the degree to which science informed the decision about a nonscientific subject?
JM: My job is to make sure that the president understands the issues. I think he has understood every science issue that I have ever talked with him about. Actually, I think he’s understood well, much better than people would imagine.

Seed: What do you regard as your greatest accomplishment?
JM: In a job like this, the most important accomplishment is to make sure that this vast machinery of science continues to move forward and produce the kind of results that have made America strong and great and an exciting place to be a scientist. And I believe that history will show that under this administration, science and technology have thrived as well as they could, given the constraints that we work under. Those constraints are very great. Not least of which is having a very unpopular president, very difficult foreign policy, wars, and unpopular policies of various kinds. Those notwithstanding, I’m satisfied that I’ve done everything that I could to make science work for the nation. I think that future presidents will find it difficult to compile a record as long as this one. In retrospect, it will be seen that this was a tough act to follow.

Seed: What challenges will President-elect Obama face? What advice would you give him and his science advisor?
JM: President-elect Obama, godspeed to him, will face similar difficulties. He ran such a perfect campaign, I hesitate to give him any advice. But, I would say, have respect for the science and for the structures that generations of his predecessors have labored to put in place to make science work for America. 

Seed: Let’s start here.
JM: All right. America continues to lead the world in its investments in science, in virtually every field. Although we have about 5 percent of the world’s population, we employ about 20 percent of the world’s scientists and engineers. No large country other than Japan devotes as much of its GDP to research and development as the US. On the federal level, about half is in the Department of Defense. The other half is the nondefense research. Nondefense research is always a constant fraction of the nondefense discretionary budget, so as the discretionary budget grows or shrinks, the budget for nondefense science grows or shrinks along with it. That pattern has held for four decades, and I expect that to continue.

There are some imbalances in funding. When the Cold War ended, support for physical science, engineering, math, and computer science really flattened out. But with that leveling off, the support for biomedical research was growing steadily, as it had been during the Cold War. In recent years the NIH budget doubled; 60 percent of that money was provided by this administration. The president embraced it as he had a number of things, including nanotechnology and information technology initiatives, that actually had their seeds in the previous administration.

Originally published January 13, 2009

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