The Science Adviser

/ by Chris Mooney /

The top science post in the White House needs to be pulled from the shadows of the Cold War and reestablished as a cornerstone of crucial, rational advice for the US presidency.

Illustration by Alice Cho

You really have to feel for physicist John Marburger, President Bush’s long-serving and controversial science adviser. Not only was Marburger appointed very late in 2001—seemingly as an afterthought—but when he finally got the job, it came with a diminished title. Unlike his most recent predecessors, Marburger was not named “Assistant to the President” on science matters. Furthermore, many of Bush’s most contested science policy decisions, on issues like embryonic stem cell research and climate change, had been announced before Marburger achieved his official Senate confirmation. As a result, the physicist often found himself defending administration stances even though he hadn’t been at the table when some of them were set.

The top democratic presidential contender, Hillary Clinton, has officially pledged to right the wrongs against Marburger—or at least, against his office. If elected, Hillary says, her science adviser will be named early, get the “Assistant to the President” title back, and report directly to her. That’s great for the science adviser post—and once again, terrible for Marburger. He may wind up being book-ended in history by advisers who had much more power and influence than he himself possessed.

Irrespective of Marburger’s feelings, though, we should welcome a national dialogue about how to restore the stature of his post—which, as the University of California-Merced science historian Gregg Herken put it to me in a recent phone conversation, has reached “a kind of nadir” under the Bush administration. But if we’re going to contemplate changes to the presidential science adviser’s office, they should come not merely in response to the Marburger experience, but also in reaction to how American science and culture alike have changed in recent decades. While it would be easy for any president to name a less embattled adviser than Marburger, what’s tougher is recognizing precisely what kind of adviser—and what kind of advice—that president most needs today.

While its origins stretch back to the World War II effort, science advising did not become an official part of the US leadership package until the administration of Dwight Eisenhower. The crisis following the Soviet launch of Sputnik led Eisenhower to pull scientists to his breast and set up a formal advisory capacity. As MIT president James Killian, the first science adviser, described his role in an influential 1957 memo, it would be to keep the president informed about science and, more specifically, about the government’s scientific research apparatus—particularly with respect to military matters. But the science adviser would also brief the executive on “future trends or developments in the area [of] science and technology,” work with the National Science Foundation on funding scientific research, and generally seek to maintain “good and close relations with the US scientific and engineering community.”

At the outset, the science adviser post enjoyed a high status. The Vietnam War, however, drove a wedge between scientific academia and policymaking elites. In 1973, President Nixon fired his science advisers outright over disagreements about the viability of the Supersonic Transport program and other matters. More controversies erupted during the Reagan administration, when adviser George Keyworth came under intense criticism from scientists after staunchly supporting Reagan’s “Star Wars” space-based missile defense initiative. (Marburger’s defenses of George W. Bush on subjects like creationism and climate science strongly evokes the Keyworth experience.)

In the context of today’s White House, the science adviser post can be thought of as somewhat parallel to—but, at present, considerably less influential than—that of the national security adviser. After all, just think how many more Americans recognize the name “Condi Rice” than the name “Jack Marburger.” Indeed, even today, one could argue that the science advising position has failed to come out of the shadow of military policy and stand on its own.

Because formal US science advising was born during the Cold War, the emphasis often lay upon finding someone who intimately grasped nuclear security issues. The tradition lingers up to the present: The past four science advisers, including Marburger, have all been physicists. Yet while nuclear security issues remain vital, the science policy portfolio has dramatically diversified since the Cold War era. Environmental and energy issues like climate change, and biomedical and bioethical ones like embryonic stem cell research, have increasingly come front and center. Even security policy decisions have to encompass concerns about bioterror and biowarfare.

In light of these new realities, the American public might benefit from, say, a leading biomedical researcher or environmental expert serving as adviser to the president. Imagine if the new administration featured a prominent biomedical scientist in the White House—someone like human genome pioneer Francis Collins comes to mind. Everyone would immediately recognize the implication: The president grasps the huge political significance of recent advances in genetics and biotechnology.

And what about the climate field: It’s doubtful that any science-based issue will command as much of the next president’s time and attention as global warming. So why not pick a top climate researcher as an adviser? NASA’s James Hansen, the nation’s most famous climate scientist, might be too outspoken even for an administration that accepts the gravity of the climate situation. But what about Sherwood Rowland or Mario Molina, the Nobel laureates who discovered the CFC-ozone link and have since been leaders on the climate issue? In science policy circles, one also sometimes hears mention of Harvard’s John Holdren, former American Association for the Advancement of Science president and an energy and climate expert, as a top science adviser candidate. With any of these choices, the nation’s “First Scientist” could also serve as the administration’s top spokesperson on the climate issue.

Or consider another idea for elevating the science adviser position—and making it relevant to the modern media age: why not name a true science celebrity—a Steven Pinker, say, or an E.O. Wilson? The latter presents an intriguing choice both mediagenically and politically. With his most recent book, The Creation, the Southern-born Harvard biologist has sought to reach out to evangelicals and stoke their nascent concerns about preserving the environment. At a time when the science world finds itself riven over just how far to go in advocating atheism and secularism, Wilson represents a less divisive approach, one with far broader appeal.

To be sure, whatever the adviser’s area of expertise or disciplinary background, it’s most critical that he or she be a “quick study,” as Rice University physicist Neal Lane—who served as President Clinton’s second science adviser—told me recently. “If they’re a physicist, they’re going to have to learn a lot of biology, medicine, engineering, climate science, and so forth pretty fast,” explained Lane. “But if they’re a biologist, they’re also going to have to learn a lot in the physical sciences.” Moreover, science advisers must excel as much in administration—in working with Congress, in cooperating with other parts of the executive branch, in not setting off political landmines—as they do in pure science based consultation.

Still, the fact remains: Science has become more crucial to White House policymaking today than ever before, in part because it has infiltrated so many new spheres. Advice to the presidency is not just about missiles anymore—it’s about stem cells, ecosystems, neuroscience, bird flu, and private spaceflight. And it’s also about the ability to get a message across. Today the facts alone aren’t enough: Any successful science adviser must also be a skilled communicator on behalf of science, to the president but also to the media and the general public. That’s why we need a “First Scientist” who can walk out of the Oval Office, ride over to address Congress, and then appear before the television cameras, all in a day’s work. At a time of contentious politicization and deep uncertainty, we need a credible science advocate in the Oval Office who can inspire not only good decision making, but public trust as well.

Originally published January 3, 2008

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