The Intersection

John Marburger on the Defensive

Without holding anything back, I’ve tried to be respectful in my criticisms of Bush science adviser John Marburger. He’s a well regarded scientist, after all. And I doubt he’s responsible for any of the troublesome behavior of the administration.

But Marburger’s defenses of the administration are getting more and more indefensible. His latest interview with NPR is a case in point. The interviewer let Marburger off far too easily, but anyone familiar with recent news about politics and science can read between the lines. So, let’s parse this interview, based upon a transcript provided by Nexis:

GONYEA [NPR]: At the White House, Dr. John Marburger has been the President’s science advisor for just over four years. He firmly makes the point that the President’s new proposals about increased funding for science are not to be seen as a response to critics of Mr. Bush’s science policy.

Dr. JOHN MARBURGER, (Science Advisor to President Bush): No, I’ve criticized the criticisms for being somewhat irrelevant and not actually solidly based.

GONYEA: Does this though send a message, you think, kind of a counter-message, I guess?

Dr. MARBURGER: I wouldn’t even want to link the two in any way.

Yeah, but Karl Rove might. Anyway, the interview continues:

GONYEA: Ask what’s wrong with the criticism, Marburger replies…

Dr. MARBURGER: Well, because they’re primarily directed at a relatively small number of very contentious areas like climate change to mention only one, and areas that we know are controversial, stem cells is another one where the issues are hardly science issues, they’re ethical issues, they’re economic issues, they’re issues where there’s a great deal of interest and polarization, not only in the science community, and they have acquired a political edge as well. So I tend to stay away from those things. I don’t think they’re in any way undermining the strength of American science, and we try to keep our eye on the ball.

This is really amazing. Marburger is saying the charges of science abuse don’t matter in the grander scheme of things because they’re generally limited to a small number of extremely controversial issues. First, that’s factually false. Similar allegations have occurred on all sorts of less high-profile issues (like logging), it’s just that they draw less attention. But more importantly, does Marburger really mean to suggest that it’s okay for distortions to occur with respect to certain issues that are highly politicized because they’re so contentious? If so, that’s completely backwards. Precisely because of the significance of these issues, preserving scientific integrity is all the more important.

The interview continues:

GONYEA: Though certainly climate change is a science issue. It’s not just a political issue.

Dr. MARBURGER: Actually, there’s not much disagreement on the science side. It’s the question of what should be done about it. As I understand it the controversy is whether you should regulate CO2, and that is clearly a question of strategy. It has huge economic implications, so that it’s not simply a science question. The science, you know, there’s no, there is essentially no disagreement on the things that are known about climate.

Nonsense. The administration itself contains people who don’t agree with the science, as we know very well. People like James Connaughton, head of the Council on Environmental Quality.

GONYEA: So again, do you think there’s basic agreement on the science in terms of the cause of climate change and everything?

Dr. MARBURGER: Sure. I think basically. Because it has become a contentious issue I think we get very polarized reports, highly spun on all sides, that make it confusing for people. But within this administration there hasn’t been confusion about this issue ever since the National Academies gave us their report in 2001.

Riiiight. That’s why Bush met with Michael Crichton in 2005, who reportedly confirmed his “dissenter” view on the science.

This is one place where the NPR interviewer blew it, incidentally. He should have asked Marburger why Bush is meeting with Crichton to learn about climate science, especially since our president had already heard from the National Academies.

GONYEA: But we’ve seen scientists leaving the EPA, talking about how their reports have been dismissed or ignored, or that political appointees have changed language.

Dr. MARBURGER: Well, I don’t think, I’m not sure we’re talking about the EPA. But I’m not, I mean if you’d like to discuss that in some other context, I would be willing to do so.

But the fact is that I have looked at all of these allegations myself to see if what was happening signaled an effort to suppress or censor things that was somehow orchestrated from the top, and I haven’t found any evidence of that.

This is a blatant dodge. Marburger’s own 2004 “reply” to charges of science abuse responds to a number of case studies involving the EPA. How can he say he’s “not sure we’re talking about the EPA”?

Again, the interviewer should have pressed him on this.

GONYEA: And does that include the Hansen case down at NASA?

Dr. MARBURGER: Yes, the Hansen case as well. I think the NASA administrator has handled that as well as he can, and I think that’s a NASA issue right now.

Yeah, and NASA has probably shown more responsiveness than any other agency to this problem. But Marburger is selectively minimizing the scope of the allegations by denying that EPA is an issue and then claiming that NASA has been dealt with.

GONYEA: We talked to Don Kennedy, the editor of Science magazine, and he does applaud the President for these increases in funding that he’s proposed. But he says the NASA example and scientists at NOAA and reports they have put out that draw connections between hurricane intensity and water temperatures have not been taken seriously or have been just completely ignored or those scientists muzzled. Can you react to that?

Dr. MARBURGER: Yes, he’s wrong. I mean it’s simply not true.

GONYEA: How is he wrong? Where has he got it so wrong?

Dr. MARBURGER: The assertion that those things are not taken seriously is false. You know, we have a climate change science program that has a very elaborate and multi-faceted strategic plan that designates priority areas to look at, and these topics are discussed in those strategic plans and they’re they’re being done. The issue of, for example, abrupt climate change and short-term impacts of climate change are very, have a very high priority in the federal programs that are funding climate change science.

This is another dodge. Marburger is not responding directly to Dr. Kennedy’s charge. He’s talking about the research agenda of the Climate Change Science Program, which has nothing to do with allegations that agency scientists are being muzzled.

GONYEA: Marburger acknowledges the tensions between the administration and the scientific community. I asked him if there are things the White House is doing to try to resolve disagreements.

Dr. MARBURGER: I’m sorry, I don’t see that there’s a White House function there. I don’t, we might be talking about different things. My interest is in getting everyone to understand science.

Hmm, if there’s no White House function here, Dr. Marburger, then why did you bother to respond formally to the criticisms in 2004?

GONYEA: But certainly the criticism that comes toward the White House, to have a dialogue, you’ve responded by dismissing most of it.

Dr. MARBURGER: That’s right, yeah, mm-hmm.

GONYEA: But that’s not dialogue.

Zing. Finally the interviewer gets somewhere. Marburger has rejected scientists’ concerns pretty much out of hand, and that’s an unacceptable (and indefensible) response to the problem. It has angered scientists further, and is certainly preventing any serious resolution of this issue.

Dr. MARBURGER: I’m not sure what you’re driving at. In my view these issues are receiving about as much airing as one could possibly want. No one can help learning about these controversies and reading about them in almost every publication. But let me get back to the point.

GONYEA: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MARBURGER: I don’t think these issues are terribly significant in the face of the enormous range and magnitude of science that is conducted in this country. They’re isolated to a very small number of issues that are known to be highly controversial and politicized, and I just don’t think that the heat that has been generated around them is warranted.

Let’s say it again: The charges are *not* isolated, and moreover, the most high-profile issues are the ones where we should be most concerned that science is being meddled with, because there’s so much at stake.

And there it ends. All in all, this was not a very impressive showing for the president’s science adviser, who, it seems, can only be characterized at this point as an apologist for the administration.


  1. #1 Stefan Jones
    February 28, 2006

    I heard the interview and had much the same reaction.

    “He’s a well regarded scientist, after all.”

    The only explanations I can think of:

    * They have one of his grandkids wired with explosives. If he comes out in favor of CAFE standards, blam!

    * Marburger was promised a spot on the Space Ark Ronald Reagan if he keeps his mouth shut until the Evacuation. (It’s a steerage berth, but you take what you can. Staterooms are reserved for Bush Pioneers and the Saudi royal family.)

  2. #2 Anonymous
    February 28, 2006

    At least Marburger isn’t claiming that there is debate about whether or not global warming is happening. He’s dodging the issue of muzzling scientists, though. I’d also be curious to find out what his view is on some of the political appointees that are doing the muzzling.

  3. #3 Chris Mooney
    February 28, 2006

    Well, that’s the thing. Marburger will never be caught misrepresenting the science itself, but he will constantly be caught defending those who are guilty of this.

  4. #4 Eric Wallace
    February 28, 2006


    They’re isolated to a very small number of issues that are known to be highly controversial and politicized

    Ummm…is there any other kind of science issue that’s going to reach the White House?

  5. #5 Elf M. Sternberg
    February 28, 2006

    I heard this interview and I said to my wife, “I can’t wait to read Chris Mooney fisk this one!” Nice to see I wasn’t disappointed.

  6. #6 SkookumPlanet
    February 28, 2006

    I read the 2004 Union of Concerned Scientists paper and Marburger’s response at the time. He spent some large fraction of it [1/3?] talking about funding for science which was not an issue at all in the UCS report. That, clearly, is an attempt to change the subject and produce warm feelings about the administration. It’s pure politics and rhetorically highly dishonest.

    Whatever his reputation as a scientist is/was this type of public, official behavior turns him into a shill. Perhaps he’s doing yoeman’s work for science inside the administration. But this intentionally falsified response is exactly the type of rhetorical tool the ID people use.

  7. #7 Fred Bortz
    February 28, 2006

    Yes, you can bash Marburger, but his interview is useful if you want to have a discussion with a person who accepts that there is a scientific consensus but recalls past instances when the left was abusing science, and therefore views the consensus as much weaker than it is.

    After pointing out to such a person that Marburger accepts the scientific consensus, I recommended reading RWOS for insights on how the Republican Party has become intellectually dishonest. As I’ve noted before, I see this as an ideological war on science that at present seems to be a particular affliction of the Republican Party. As Chris notes in RWOS, the objective is to bring intellectual honesty to both parties. I’ll work on my fellow Democrats and hope that there are plenty of Republicans who are willing to do the same on their side. Then we can have partisan policy discussions based on agreed-upon impartial science. (Perhaps I’m dreaming…)

    Link to my blog entry:

  8. #8 Phobos
    February 28, 2006

    Egad, can he sound any more like a politician? Maybe its time to nix the Science Advisor post, as it appears to be just part of the presidential echo chamber, and instead have the president refer to the NAS for any scientific advice.

  9. #9 Dano
    February 28, 2006

    Yup. I heard it too, and I think the sound engineer did a good job at damping the sound of JM’s tap-dancing. I thought DG did a good job at being patient, dogged and asking good questions, and that, in the end, is likely what did JM in, as he can’t be used to that.



  10. #10 Eric
    March 1, 2006

    Re: Phobos: “Maybe its time to nix the Science Advisor post, as it appears to be just part of the presidential echo chamber, and instead have the president refer to the NAS for any scientific advice.”

    We shouldn’t forget that Marburger is one of only a few (3 at the moment, I believe) political appointees at the Office of Science and Technology in the White House. Ph.D. scientists–with a broad range of ideologies–form the majority of the staff there. They do generally good work on allocating government money to big, pure science projects; the politicians just set broad priorities.

  11. #11 Paul Bosco
    December 20, 2008

    Marburger was President of Stony Brook University and last I checked head of Brookhaven Nat’l Lab. I graduated from one, worked briefly at the other. He has a decent reputation, but his approval ratings would be limited by the political nature of his positions. He would certainly be used to living with mixes of disappointment and approval from those around him. And he surely knew his scientific-community colleagues were due for much disappointment from the Bush team.

    He is also a Democrat. He may have been a moderating force within the administration, keeping things from being worse. He may have accepted that role, and have resigned himself to sprinkling his comments with less-than-heartfelt analysis. Maybe starting 1/21/09 we will know more about his tenure. I had anticipated he would be asked to resign during Bush’s first term, for being too pro-science.

    It is possible that, through political skill, he got away with being a better Science Advisor than anyone should have thought possible, given the proclivities of this White House.

    However, as tepid as is this defense of Marburger, it should be understood as tentative. Maybe, as the Bush closets are opened, information will come out that casts him in a better light. My guess is his service will just be forgotten.

    –Paul Bosco

  12. #12 Neal Richter
    January 25, 2009

    I agree with Paul here. If you are in a position like Marburger and you can either resign in disgust or do your duty and attempt to win lots of little victories w.r.t. funding and progress in science while doing your best to put a happy face on policy issues.

    What is the alternative here Chris? A science PhD in a Bush White House is /set up/ to be the bad guy. If you are in that position I’m sure you’d like to be able to discuss all those minor victories and progress made rather than be forced to defend policies set by those above your pay-grade.

    Note that I met Marburger briefly once after listening to a speech on campus. He certainly didn’t strike me as anything other than an earnest scientist.

    Either way it’s over and we’ve got a President who used the word ‘data’ in the inaugural address. Any clues on who takes Marburger’s old job yet?

  13. #13 Neal Richter
    January 25, 2009

    Wished I would have read his exit interview with Seed before I wrote my comment. He’s spinning hard in that one.. but this was going to be a Villan’s role from day one.