Political Science: The Bush Administration Snubs Its Science Adviser

By Mooney, Chris | The American Prospect, December 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Political Science: The Bush Administration Snubs Its Science Adviser


Mooney, Chris, The American Prospect


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 advising.

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.

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