In the wake of the near panic over the launch of Sputnik in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed James Killian, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to become the first special assistant to the president for science and technology. Ever since, the relationship between the nation’s chief executive and the White House’s resident authority on nuclear fission, the workings of DNA and the greenhouse effect, among an array of topics, has had its highs and lows.
To be sure, advice has flowed freely at times. Eisenhower consulted frequently with Killian and other scientists, and in the Kennedy years Jerome Wiesner, another M.I.T. president, helped to coordinate the government’s response to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book that spurred a national grassroots environmental movement by pointing out the dangers of pesticides.
Just as often the adviser’s position has tilted toward irrelevance. Richard M. Nixon went so far as to abolish the job altogether, along with the President’s Science Advisory Committee, which had recommended against going ahead with a supersonic transport program, advice that the ill-fated 37th president did not want to hear. (The U.S. Congress restored the position in 1976.)
The tenure of George W. Bush marks a new nadir. On the few science-related issues the administration has cared about—stem cells and climate change were on the short list—it had largely set its course before the arrival of its new science adviser John H. Marburger III some nine months after Bush first took office. The administration, moreover, stripped the job of the title “special assistant to the president,” a reminder that the adviser would never be part of the inner circle.
Nevertheless, hopes rose with the appointment of the well-regarded physicist and former head of Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory. “As both scientist and administrator, John H. Marburger III tries to bring needed perspective into a White House not thought to be particularly interested in science,” read a headline for a profile published in Scientific American in June 2002.
In the ensuing years, Marburger has disappointed. Much of his public persona has been as an apologist for the Bush team, trying to rebut charges from scientists, Congress and the media that the administration has engaged in a “war on science” by systematically distorting or suppressing science-related reports and politicizing federal advisory committees.
Bush’s first appointed EPA administrator, former New Jersey Republican governor Christine Todd Whitman, resigned in 2003, amid this politically charged atmosphere. Mystifyingly, the ever dutiful Marburger, a registered Democrat, has spent more time as science adviser than any of the dozen or so men who have served before him.
Marburger continues to plow ahead with elaborate rationales that acknowledge in one breath the reality of global warming and in the next explain why “adaptation” to rising temperatures (think pineapple farming in North Dakota) needs to receive more attention. He has also assumed the role of the disembodied, neutral voice that quietly corrects the boss’s gaffes. Yes, evolution is the “cornerstone of modern biology.” No, intelligent design is not a scientific concept (comments he made the day after Bush twice said that both should be taught in schools).
We can only hope that the next president, whether Democrat or Republican, will not relegate the science adviser—and the entire scientific endeavor—to the status of afterthought. Once elected, the new chief executive should hire a leading scientist, perhaps one with Marburger’s credentials though not with his compliant, technocratic demeanor. In collaboration with the rest of the community, the official should be allowed to assume a prominent, unimpeded role in helping to influence the crafting of policies that address climate change, missile defense and stem cells. The war on cancer—and a host of other research initiatives—should once again take precedence over the war on science.