Following his (excellent) article in Seed on the topic, my SciBling Chris Mooney blogs about the future of the position of the Science Advisor to the President, suggesting some potential names, and Matt Nisbet, RPM, Blake Stacey, Brian Switek, Scott Hatfield, Lila Guterman, Larry Moran, Mike Dunford, Flavin, c4chaos, Gordon Watts and PZ Myers chime in with their own opinions on the potential candidates.
For some reason, all the bloggers are focusing on popularizers of science and charismatic figures. But the job of a Science Advisor to the President is not really that public (unless the next President completely changes this role).
For a few decades, since the position has first been formed, the role of the Science Advisor was, well, to advise the President on scientific topics. Mooney is correct that there has been a shift in topic since then, i.e., what the most important science-related issues of the day are – from atomic energy that was really big in the 50s and 60s to the biotechnology and climate science today.
GW Bush waited almost a year – during which he did a LOT of assaults on science – before appointing poor Dr.Marburger for the role. Then, he demoted the role – the Science Advisor no longer has the ear of the President, but is relegated to some backroom to play rummy with the Origami Advisor, Interior Decorating Advisor and Dog-Grooming Advisor. Every now and then, when the Administration does something particularly egregious and the science community attacks them for it, someone goes to the back room and drags Marburger out to the microphones and cameras and instructs him to say something along the lines of “But, George Bush is a nice guy. Really. And he really likes science. He really enjoyed watching that nature show – did you see it the other day? – especially when the pack of hyenas ripped into that wildebeest. Wasn’t that cool?”
In the unlikely event that a Republican wins the elections in November, it is highly unlikely that the role of Science Advisor will get reinstated to the former level, not even by the least insane candidate, the only one who concedes that global warming is real and may be a bad thing and perhaps, just perhaps, humans may have something to do with it (McCain). When everything you stand for is against the empirical reality, why have some scientist keep reminding you that you are basing your policy decisions on fairy-tales, wishful thinking and gut-feeling?
On the other hand, all the Democratic candidates have indicated, at least indirectly, that they would reinstate the position back to the Cabinet level. Mooney reports:
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.
Thus, in the next Administration, the new Science Advisor will be a member of the Cabinet, will be present at all the Cabinet meetings, will talk to the President daily, and will have a direct influence on policy on a day-to-day basis. I do not see the Science Advisor as a public figure, though a public appearance may happen occasionally, perhaps to announce major science-related news from the White House. In other words, the person will not be responsible for selling science to the people, but explaining science to a reality-based President. A very, very different role.
All of the people mentioned by bloggers are completely unprepared for such a job. What is needed is someone who is well versed in science policy and politics and has a track record in administration of science and in dealing with the Congress. It does not even matter if the person is famous or a complete unknown to the general public, a highly controversial figure or someone universally liked, a theist or an atheist – none of those things are likely to ever affect the job (or the initial nomination) at any time.
So, my personal pick for the job is Harold Varmus, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his discovery of oncogenes and is a prolific researcher. He spent six years as the Director of NIH during which time he managed to persuade the Congress to double the NIH budget. He really got PubMed going, is a big proponent of Open Access, is now the President of Sloan-Kettering and he turned a dream into reality by founding the Public Library of Science. He has testified in Congress and is a very likable person and an effective speaker. He has no negatives I can possibly think of, knows his science, knows his policy/politics and is persuasive and passionate. I think he would be perfect.