Most people are demoted for poor performance. Dr.
John H. Marburger,
President Bush's newly confirmed science adviser, was kicked down a notch before
he even started his job. For over a decade, the national science adviser--who
heads the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)--has been a
near-cabinet-level position. Officially, the designation is "Assistant to the
President." Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national-security adviser, holds that rank;
as chief of staff during the Ford administration, so did Dick Cheney. But
Marburger, the former head of the Department of Energy's Brookhaven National
Laboratory, concedes "That title was never offered to me." (A recent executive
order calls him merely a "Federal Government official.") D. Allan Bromley, the
Yale nuclear physicist who served as the presidential science adviser to Bush's
father, takes a dark view of this turn of events. The administration, he says,
has simply decided that "they don't need that level of scientific input."
Another former OSTP director, Neal Lane, worries that the downgrading of
Marburger's position may impede his access to the president--though Marburger
says that he hasn't had any problems getting his views across to top policy
makers. Still, in light of today's circumstances, the decision by Bush and his
handlers to put their science adviser in the outer orbit of the White House is an
odd one. Even setting aside the central role of scientific and technological
advances in spurring economic growth (a key refrain of Federal Reserve Chairman
Alan Greenspan's and no small matter in a recession), the biological and nuclear
threats posed by terrorism call for exactly the sort of timely and objective
science advice that Marburger, by all accounts, is ideally equipped to provide.
War--the cold one--brought scientists into the White
House. In the atmosphere
of national paranoia surrounding the successful launch of Sputnik in 1957,
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his science adviser James Killian, a former
MIT president, quickly responded by founding a star-studded group known as PSAC:
the President's Science Advisory Committee. It was the "apogee of presidential
science advising," says the Yale science historian Daniel Kevles, and it
continued into the Nixon years.
The Vietnam War, however, drove a wedge between academic scientists and those
in power. In 1973, Nixon, distrustful of the peacenik PSAC members who opposed
the administration line on the antiballistic-missile system, abolished both the
committee and the position of presidential science adviser. "Nixon's people said,
'We're not going to invite these vipers into the nest,'" observes Gregg Herken,
author of Cardinal Choices, a 1992 history of presidential science
It appears that the George W. Bush administration may be following the Nixon
model very closely. At first, it looked as though there wouldn't even be a
science adviser: Before Marburger's confirmation on October 23, rumors circulated
that Bush would be dismantling OSTP. Then there were delays in naming an adviser.
Marburger's first moves at OSTP have further deepened scientists' concerns--and
even spawned some conspiracy theories ("Why would he reduce his own influence?"
critics ask). Though previous OSTP heads have had four Senate-confirmed associate
directors, Marburger says that he'll appoint just two: one for science and one
for technology. This rules out an associate director for national security and
international affairs, thus severing OSTP's traditional link to the National
Security Council just as the nation goes to war. But Marburger counters, in
confident Bush-speak, that he's working in a more streamlined, business-style
White House, and that's why he wants fewer associate directors. "I felt there
were too many of them," he says, "and that they were somewhat stovepiped."
Still more alarming is Marburger's selection of Richard Russell, the White
House's transition chief of staff for OSTP, to serve as associate director for
technology. Previous associate directors have typically held doctorates and top
university positions. Bromley's life-sciences director, for example, was Donald
A. Henderson, former dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the
man credited with the eradication of smallpox. Russell, by contrast, worked as a
staffer on the House Science Committee under the partisan Republican F. James
Sensenbrenner; he has a bachelor's degree in biology.
Marburger says that he certainly respects advanced degrees but feels they're
"not essential for policy work in all cases." Still, many scientists are stunned.
"The question, everyone thought, was would Marburger keep this guy as his chief
of staff or not--never dreaming that he would become one of the top two
scientists heading OSTP," says one longtime leader in science policy circles. And
John Holdren, director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy
at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, calls Russell's appointment
"just ridiculous." He continues: "I find it inexplicable that we have a nominee
who has no qualifications in technology whatsoever. None. Zero. Zip."
As with the Nixon administration, the Bush team at
times seems inclined to
regard scientists--whose obsession with facts sometimes prompts them to criticize
partisan policies--as vipers. Throughout the 1990s, after all, it's hard to
pinpoint a scientific issue that wasn't also a partisan one. Right-wing
Republicans, with their pro-life and anti-evolution constituencies, have often
seemed antagonistic to the very process of science itself. A telltale moment
came when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his cohorts elected, under the
"Contract with America," to dismantle the congressional Office of Technology
Assessment (OTA), the agency some called our "national defense against the dumb."
Since 1972, OTA--Congress's version of the Office of Science and Technology
Policy--produced scores of highly respected reports on issues ranging from energy
policy to bioethics. According to John Gibbons, who directed OTA before coming on
as Bill Clinton's science adviser, there's a growing feeling in Congress that the
office simply must be reinstated.
Before John Marburger had even been chosen, the first five to six months of
the Bush administration saw the partisan polarization of several scientific
issues: missile defense (evocative, given the Nixon example), energy policy, stem
cell research, and global warming. Particularly in the latter case, the Bush team
was wary of vipers.
As acting director of OSTP during the first nine months of the Bush
administration, Rosina Bierbaum, a climate-science expert and former associate
director for environment under Clinton, briefed a few cabinet-level officials on
the current data and theories relating to global warming. But Bierbaum--now dean
of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of
Michigan--says that "the scientists [who] knew the most about climate change at
OSTP were not allowed to participate" in deliberations on the issue within the
White House inner circle. The Bush administration, you may recall, was
subsequently broadsided by a National Academy of Sciences report that undercut
their official line on climate change--a study that the administration itself had
commissioned. And if the president's team was mad at the scientific community
after that embarrassment, scientists were equally outraged by Bush's proposed
science budget--developed long before Marburger came on board--which
substantially cut virtually all federal research-and-development programs except
those associated with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or defense.
In this context, Marburger's July declaration that he was a lifelong Democrat
may not have been a particularly canny political move. When the Bush
administration's views on key issues stand outside the scientific mainstream,
they've shown signs of a willingness to shoot the messenger.
Bioterrorism could change this. So far it's not a
partisan issue (although in
September, the same could have been said of airport security). And Marburger's
OSTP has been working closely to provide "science coordination service" for Tom
Ridge's Office of Homeland Security. Newsweek recently reported that when
faced with contradictory interpretations of whether certain anthrax spores had
been "weaponized," Ridge picked up the phone and yelled, "I need scientists!"
Marburger says he was on the other end of the line.
Marburger would have been of use sooner--an authoritative presence to
accompany the soothing words of Surgeon General David Satcher and NIH specialist
Anthony Fauci. Ridge had previously insisted that the anthrax sent to Senator Tom
Daschle's office was not "weaponized" and then had been forced to change his
position--the type of flub that institutionalized science advice should be able
to prevent. Marburger might also have been able to avert Department of Health
and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson's embarrassing public assertion that
the first inhalation-anthrax victim may have contracted the disease by drinking
from a stream. "There have been many statements in recent days and weeks that
would have benefited from a more complete knowledge of the underlying science,"
says Bromley. Neal Lane, now a professor at Rice University, agrees: "You need
more than ever to have someone close in, advising the president and his other key
aides on matters like anthrax."
But geographically speaking, at least, Marburger's proximity seems anything
but assured. As war began in Afghanistan, OSTP, along with several other offices,
was evacuated from the White House's Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Now no
one, including Marburger, seems to know when--or if--OSTP will be moving back.
When asked to confirm that the Office of Homeland Security had taken over the old
OSTP office, Marburger responded: "That's not entirely true. . . . The fact is that
it's pretty empty." John Holdren of Harvard, for one, sees the move as almost
another nail in the coffin for Marburger. Never mind penetrating the Oval Office:
"The question is, will he have the right kind of badge to walk into the West Wing
without an escort?"
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