The Intersection

Folks: Here’s another old article I wrote that wasn’t online. You could say this is the article that started it all…my 2001 report on how John Marburger had been marginalized in the Bush administration. We’re talking old school….but at the same time, this kind of writing ultimately led to The Republican War on Science.

Political Science: The Bush administration snubs its science adviser
The American Prospect
December 3, 2001

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. 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?”

Comments

  1. #1 andy
    January 31, 2008

    The Canadian minority Conservative government (read: Prime Minister Stephen Harper) not only fired the President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for refusing to bow to political demands to put economic considerations above nuclear safety, but also has abolished the Office of the National Science Advisor.

    Harper (whose degrees are in economics) has publicly stated that earthquakes pose no risk to Canada’s nuclear reactors. Period.

    I guess he doesn’t want no uppity science advisor to contradict him.

    Wonderful country. (And it’s mine. I hope the 3 Opposition parties finally gang up on him and vote him out.)

  2. #2 Joshua Zelinsky
    January 31, 2008

    “John gibbons”- the g in Gibbons should be capitalized.

  3. #3 Hugh (Bart) Vincelette
    February 1, 2008

    I agree totally with andy, in the above message. Harper came into office with the support of a narrow faith-based coalition of people awaiting the rapture. Sound familiar? The Oval Office has weekly meetings with folks who make former Secretary of the Interior , James Watt ; look like someone with functioning intra-cranial neurons .

  4. #4 Karl
    February 1, 2008

    In reply to Andy;

    While I whole heartedly disagree with the abrupt termination of Ms Keen’s employement as head of CNSC, you’ve insunuated, nay, stated as fact a great deal that is simply not true.

    She was not fired for, and I quote “refusing to bow to political demands to put economic considerations above nuclear safety”, she was fired for not bowing to international political pressure that was veiled behind the ever fruitful tree of humanitarian good will.

    You yourself have noted that Harper leads a minority government; the emergency legislation needed to bypass the direct order given by Ms. Keen needed a majority vote. It got more than that, it got a unanimous vote, by all Parties; Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Green, even the radical block heads from Quebec and Independants all either voted Yes or deliberatly abstained from voting at all, thereby giving their consent.

    The closure of the Chalk River reactor led to a worldwide medical isotope shortage. People across the globe were dying, in need of those isotopes, and it was all Canada’s fault.

    It’s pathetic that not only was a decision made that could have(and might still) had even more dire global consequences, but that the most vocal critics in our Parliament are those that pressed the wax.

    Get the facts straight next time, or simply state your position as a die hard politial spin doctor. Deliberate obfuscation simply breeds distrust, and underminds whatever good you may have had in mind.

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