I wrote this a few years ago — at the very beginning of the Trump administration, just for the record, and well before any hint of a pandemic — as a piece of a book project that eventually fizzled. It is based on reasonably extensive archival research in a few presidential libraries and two academic archives, as well as interviews with two people who have served as the science advisor to the president. With a new science advisor likely on their way to the White House soon, I thought I’d post it now, for anyone interested in a bit of science-in-government history. Enjoy.
On February 7, 1979, Lee Alvin DuBridge wrote a letter to his friend William T. Golden. Golden was in the process of putting together a collection of essays regarding science advising to the president, and DuBridge had served in the role of advisor under Richard Nixon. He begged to be let off the hook for Golden’s collection, though, citing his — for lack of a better term — failure on the job.
“My term as science advisor was not a very productive one,” DuBridge wrote. “Although Mr. Nixon himself was always cordial and cooperative, his immediate staff, after the first few months, repeatedly cancelled appointments with him, or said the President was too busy, or was not interested in the items I proposed to discuss. My office, one of them said, was not being of adequate political value to the President!” He went on: “Why dig into a brief but cloudy chapter? Everyone knows what Nixon’s staff later did. I hope you understand.”
Brief but cloudy indeed. In August 1970, DuBridge had resigned his post as science advisor to the president, citing his age (68, at the time) as the driving factor. But by all accounts, that wasn’t the only reason. “It has been apparent for some time that his White House position was becoming an unhappy one,” claimed a New York Times editorial, adding that numerous scientists had made DuBridge a “scapegoat” for cutbacks in government funding of research. “Scientists tend to regard the President’s science adviser as their friend and advocate in a high place, and the impression has been widespread that Dr. DuBridge has had relatively little influence on or even contact with the President.”
DuBridge may have been “unhappy” in his toothless role, but perhaps he took some solace less than three years later, when Nixon’s second science advisor, Edward E. David, Jr., also resigned the post. This time, a report in the Times quoted a White House source saying “Ed feels less than useful.” And, much like when DuBridge left the White House: “Dr. David’s resignation buttresses the uneasy feelings of scientists here that their opinions and needs are not being given a fair hearing by the administration.”
Though it would take a few more months for this to made clear, DuBridge’s resignation and David’s soon after represented the low point in the history of presidential science advising. Instead of replacing David, President Nixon simply abolished the position and disbanded the President’s Science Advisory Committee, effectively banishing scientific expertise from the executive branch of government.
Nixon, of course, was our foremost paranoiac president, and in general it may be wise to avoid pinning historical trends to his turbulent tenure. But the expulsion of his science advisors paints a useful picture of the entire run of that office, and that office, for better or worse, has often acted as a reflection of science’s treatment within government as a whole.
The idea for a scientific advisor to the president arose in the immediate aftermath of World War II. As the radiant glow of the Manhattan Project faded and the specter of a Cold War began to rise, the idea of a permanent centralized science apparatus began to take shape. Vannevar Bush, the general visionary who had helped launch the Manhattan Project and founded Raytheon, among a laundry list of other achievements, answered a 1944 call from President Roosevelt on the matter with a hugely influential report: “Science: The Endless Frontier.”
In it, Bush argued for increased funding for basic research, an increase in military-based research even during peacetime, and made recommendations that would eventually lead to the founding of the National Science Foundation in 1950. He also suggested that “a permanent Science Advisory Board should be created to advise the executive and legislative branches of Government on these matters.”
The idea of a board or of a single advisor was thrown around for a few years, until William Golden, an investment banker who had served in Washington with the Navy during the war, was tapped as a consultant to President Truman in late 1950. Golden had helped organize the Atomic Energy Commission, and was familiar with many civilian and military scientists around the country. He spent months talking to those prominent experts before sending Truman a recommendation in December 1950 to appoint “an outstanding scientific leader as Scientific Adviser to the President.”
In Golden’s memorandum explaining the recommendation, he noted that “more than ten” independent government departments and agencies were conducting scientific research, at a cost of $1.3 billion (nearly $13 billion in 2016 dollars). Those agencies all reported separately to the president, so Golden wrote that “[t]here is need for centralization of knowledge of all these scientific programs in one independent and technically competent individual to whom the President can turn for advice.”
In those early days, Golden’s idea was to have the advisor be a part-time position, and that whomever inhabited the role “be actively engaged in some other fulltime pursuit so that he would naturally be currently posted on goings on in the scientific world and in fact, be a part of them.” President Truman did appoint an advisor in 1951, Bell Labs president Oliver Buckley, and that part-time status held until 1957, when the Soviet launch of Sputnik sent American science into overdrive and sent the advisor into a full-time White House office.
Among Golden’s confidantes while thinking through and preparing that original recommendation was Vannevar Bush himself. Bush complained to Golden that, contrary to his role under Roosevelt, he found himself on the outside looking in when it came to the government’s treatment of science. He apparently found Truman’s lack of interest in his own advice more than a bit frustrating, and told Golden that though a science advisor might sound good, the role’s efficacy would depend entirely on the specific president he was advising — in Truman’s case, his stubbornness would mean he simply wouldn’t make use of the advisor’s expertise.
Truman, of course, did not have long left in office to make that prophecy come true. But over the next seven decades, the prediction that a science advisor to the president could work only so well as the president allowed — and only as the big issues facing the country would dictate — would prove far more accurate than the position’s progenitors could have imagined.
If you created a mold that would somehow generate a human with all the best possible qualities of a presidential science advisor, John Holdren is what would pop out. Trained as an aerospace engineer and theoretical physicist at MIT and Stanford, Holdren taught for decades at Berkeley and Harvard, while also serving on a huge array of public policy-related committees and commissions. He served as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under President Clinton, and even gave the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (which won for work on nuclear disarmament). In 2009, President Obama tapped him to be his science advisor, and to run the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) at the White House.
It was at the tail end of his time in that office, as the most anti-science president in U.S. history prepared to take over from arguably the most pro-science president, that I visited Holdren to talk about his tenure and the history of his position.
The OSTP’s actual offices sit next door to the White House, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. If you look closely, you can see that the tiled floors actually contain outlines of fossilized creatures, scattered haphazardly around the hallways. Holdren met me in his outer office, eager to completely avoid discussing the President-Elect and just as eager to discuss some of the history of the science advisor position, a favorite topic of his. We sat at a conference table in a larger inner office, a room that looked about as one would imagine a lifelong nerd’s to look: NASA models sat atop a bookshelf, and piles of folders and papers lined most surfaces. It was December, and the afternoon light through the windows faded quickly after we sat down.
“The most important thing is that there be a relationship of trust between the president and the science advisor,” he told me, “so that when the science advisor has something to say that the president doesn’t want to hear, the president doesn’t assume that it’s wrong, doesn’t assume that the science advisor made it up to make his life more difficult.”
This is a repeated refrain from former advisors and observers of the position: that there must be a good, established relationship between the science advisor and advisee in order for the relationship to function. This makes sense, though it can feel somewhat disappointing — if the science being advocated is good and true, who cares who the messenger is? But we’ve seen that ideal, of course, get shot down time and again already when it comes to science and government.
In the early days of the science advisor — in particular beginning with the Eisenhower administration when the first full-time advisor, James Killian, took office in 1957 — the men who held the position apparently enjoyed easy access to the Oval Office and held the president’s ear on a variety of issues.
Before 1957, the science advisor and an associated committee was attached to the Office of Defense Mobilization, essentially a major step removed from the White House. After Sputnik’s launch, though, it was moved officially under the White House umbrella. “It had been essentially a long-range, somewhat philosophical planning body, removed one notch from the President,” said Donald F. Hornig, who held the post in the latter part of Lyndon Johnson’s administration, in 1968. After 1957, it transformed from “a remote advisory committee to a group with a job to be done.”
The “job” in question was less science-driven and more defense-driven, in spite of the role’s title. “One immediate concern was to get the country in a position to fight a war in the next three to four years,” Hornig said, again in 1968. This highlights a fundamental issue with the science advisor, at least for its first few decades: the president seemed to see this advisor as extremely tightly tied to military matters, rather than just a general scientific expert off of which to bounce policy ideas.
It makes sense when we look back the position’s origins, and its precursors. Science as a general enterprise became nearly synonymous with the military during World War II thanks to the Manhattan Project, and the Cold War’s focus on nuclear arms and the space race only hardened that connection. Under Eisenhower, the science advisor and his committee apparently spent ninety percent of their time on secret military matters including missile defense (a recurring theme with science advisors, as we will see) and work toward a nuclear test ban. Indeed, in a 1979 letter to Lee DuBridge, William Golden said the Korean War “was the impetus for all this.” It was only in the 1960s, as the Vietnam War picked up and public support for the military soured, that science truly began to be seen as a separate entity with essential non-military applications.
That shift was reflected in the advisors’ experiences. James Killian spoke of how President Eisenhower would often consult him and other scientific experts, and according to the Times, “seemed to enjoy it.” George B. Kistiakowsky, a man known as the “High Priest of Science” on the East Coast, served under Eisenhower after Killian and said largely the same thing. Jerome Wiesner, Kennedy’s advisor, said he had “easy access” to the President. Under Johnson, that began to change.
Hornig’s struggles in convincing President Johnson were chalked up to the advisor being “a subtle man dealing with an unsubtle president.” The Vietnam War seemed to bring out some of these “unsubtleties” in many politicians. An instructive example: in 1966, the Department of Defense asked NASA to study what in retrospect sounds like an absurd idea. They wanted to assess the feasibility of launching, essentially, giant mirrors into space that could reflect sunlight and illuminate the jungles of Vietnam, allowing better targeting of the enemy. Science fiction it may seem, but this really happened; it was code-named Project ABLE.
NASA pawned off the feasibility studies on several companies, providing grant money to Boeing, Westinghouse, and others. Once scientists in academia heard the details, though, predictable opposition arose based around potential negative effects of literally eliminating night in certain parts of the world; the mirrors could cause harm to nocturnal animals, farming, and astronomy itself. The very concept seemed to shun the entire world in favor of military priorities — killing more Viet Cong seemed more important than, as one scientist put it, “ruin[ing] the night sky forever.”
A few months after the public got wind of this, a larger group of scientists formally came out against the plan in a report published by the National Academy of Sciences. This sort of conflict between military science and science that was defensible from literally any other standpoint put the White House science advisor in an awkward position.
The fundamental question that every presidential science advisor has had to face is, simply, who he (all the advisors so far have been men, with two exceptions who served only briefly in an “acting” capacity) really works for. Are you an advocate for strong science? Or a cheerleader for the country’s chief executive?
Sometimes, straddling that line meant declining to say much of anything. When the National Academy of Sciences report came out opposing the giant space mirrors, Donald Hornig offered this reassuring bromide: “The government is not interested in the mirror [concept] at the present time.” Well okay then. What did Hornig really think about — once again — giant space mirrors? Did he agree with the science community, but wouldn’t speak out strongly for fear of his “unsubtle” boss?
The specific day-to-day job of the president’s science advisor has obviously shifted over the years, in particular as more and more federal policy has taken on at least some aspect of science or engineering. Chaotic presidency of Donald J. Trump notwithstanding, generally speaking the advisor or some OSTP staff will have to be at the table when drawing up any number of regulations, policy proposals, white papers, and more; and the advisor, meanwhile, if he believes the president should face a certain direction on those policies, or react to some situation involving science in a certain way, has his work cut out for him.
“I would describe it as fighting fires,” said Neal Lane, who served as President Clinton’s advisor for his last few years in office. “Every day, or every few days, some crisis emerges because of the complexity of government.” Lane and I spoke on the phone soon after the 2016 election, when the science community began to brace itself for the president who called the firmly established, beyond-a-shadow-of-doubt link between asbestos and cancer a “con” — just to pick a random bit of science denial among many. Lane somehow maintained a reasonably optimistic tone in spite of the specter of ignorance looming above us.
Lane stressed that the science advisor needs to be an expert at coalition building if he wants to get anything done. “It isn’t really so helpful for the science advisor to walk into the president and convince the president — or at least nudge the president over on a view,” he said. There are too many other inputs involved in high-level government decision-making, and scientific reality is — sadly — only one of them.
John Holdren told me essentially the same thing: “We in the science advising business know that inputs from science are never the only inputs to the president,” he said. “What you want in science advice is for the decision-making by the president and the other senior folks around him to be informed by the relevant science, but not necessarily dictated exclusively by that. What you don’t want is them making decisions without even knowing what the relevant science has to say.”
Economic advisors, domestic policy advisors, national security advisors, the chief of staff — having these people on your side can help bring that relevant science to the president’s attention. But if you can’t align with those and others at the White House? Science doesn’t just take a back seat to other concerns; it gets relegated to the trunk or thrown out of the car entirely.
“You’ve gotta work with this team,” Lane said. “You have to calibrate people and establish some degree of rapport and trust, and trust really with a capital ‘T’ — if you do something that makes them no longer trust you, you’re done. There are a thousand ways to marginalize your effectiveness in the White House.”
One of those ways: work for Richard Milhous Nixon.
Nixon’s assault on science did not begin overnight. In early December 1968, the President-Elect appointed CalTech president Lee DuBridge to be his science advisor, to reasonable acclaim in the scientific community. Nixon said his appointment would help spawn “a major scientific research effort, particularly in the field of peaceful research.”
The incoming president had long sought acceptance from the country’s intellectual elite, and tapping Kistiakowsky’s West Coast “high priest of science” counterpart probably seemed a good first step. As the Times put it, “Mr. Nixon is thought to be particularly eager to demonstrate that a Republican President need not be alienated from scholars and scientists.”
This demonstration did not go as planned. DuBridge’s tenure started innocently enough, with pushes for increases in federal funding for science (a miss; funding continued to drop precipitously), support to reduce the amount of secret military-funded science done at universities (a hit; by May 1969 only four percent of university-held government contracts were secret, down from eight percent two years before), among other priorities.
DuBridge apparently attempted to walk that fine line between cheerleading and scientific rigor, just like his predecessors did and most successors would — in one case, on an issue that has in some ways held the science advisor hostage as long as it has existed.
On December 17, 1968, before Nixon took office, DuBridge answered a question about anti-ballistic missile systems by claiming he didn’t have enough information to formulate an opinion — admirable fence-sitting, to be sure. Only a few months later, a single, two-paragraph item in the Times cut DuBridge in half and placed a piece on either side of that fence:
“The White House made public today a letter in which Dr. Lee A DuBridge congratulated President Nixon on his antiballistic missile proposal.
Dr. DuBridge, Mr. Nixon’s science adviser, was coordinator of a study group that reportedly was critical of the ABM plan of the Johnson Administration.”
Sure, the details of those plans might have been different, but this was no fluke. Generally speaking, the scientific community has shot down as unfeasible, too expensive, or otherwise unwise virtually every large-scale missile defense idea of the last seventy years. But time and again, the scientist at the president’s right hand has found himself defending — or, at times, aggressively supporting — these plans in spite of their dubious technical feasibility. It is perhaps the best example of the disconnect that the advisors have all been forced to confront — science for science’s sake, or science for the president’s sake.
In spite of DuBridge’s willingness to jump on board the ABM train in Nixon’s White House, it didn’t take long for his usefulness as science advisor to come into question. In July 1970, a “prominent science historian” told the Washington Post that science had been all but disappeared from “the high councils of the Nixon administration.” The previous year, the Times reported on a growing “groundswell of dissent” among scientists around the globe; work stoppages normally associated with workers pressing for better wages had spread all the way to — believe it or not — entire countries’ collections of astronomers. A group of scientists at M.I.T. arranged another stoppage and released a statement that read in part:
“Misuse of scientific and technical knowledge presents a major threat to the existence of mankind. Through its actions in Vietnam our government has shaken our confidence in its ability to make wise and humane decisions.”
The president, of course, didn’t take kindly to a scientific community so diametrically opposed to his actions. For DuBridge, that community’s primary representative in Nixon’s orbit, that meant diminishing access. A few years later, he would say that White House staff “gradually built an impenetrable wall around the President.” In an essay written for a book compiled much later by William Golden, one contributor put it another way:
“Richard Nixon did not want science advising and took steps to be sure he would not get it.”
In the midst of that environment, DuBridge still tried to play the good soldier for his boss. Along with ABM and Vietnam, Nixon’s other major scientific fight was over the SST, or supersonic transport — an extremely expensive, extremely fast airplane, really. In April of 1970, a member of the House of Representatives accused the White House of suppressing a report on the SST; DuBridge acted as the deflector shield.
The report supposedly showed the super-fast plane to be “economically wasteful and environmentally harmful,” which theoretically might have helped opponents scuttle further funding to the project. DuBridge, in a letter, wrote that the report was not finalized and “was used as part of a direct input to the President.” That president had asked Congress for $290 million that year for continued development of the SST.
Once more, DuBridge showed what it meant to be a science advisor to the White House: sometimes, one must defend the indefensible. Apparently though, the SST incident represented one of the final straws he could tolerate: on August 19 of the same year, 1970, he submitted his resignation.
Nixon replaced his high priest of science with a virtual unknown, Edward E. David, Jr., described as being “well outside the main channel of the American scientific establishment.” Perhaps the idea was to move that dividing line between presidential policy cheerleader and scientific advocate toward the former and away from the latter — if the scientific community didn’t know the new advisor, they couldn’t expect much of him.
In one sense, it worked, as David lasted longer in the role than his predecessor did. He spent his 28 months at the White House again pushing for increases to federal funding for science, helping negotiate international collaborations, and continuing some of DuBridge’s policy fights that smoldered on past his exit. (That suppressed SST report was finally released more than a year after the Congressional complaints, and it did indeed recommend against further government support for the plane.)
But he too couldn’t penetrate Nixon’s wall, a situation that undoubtedly only got worse as the Watergate scandal began to blow up. In early January, 1973, David as well submitted his resignation. The Times reported, damningly, that while serving as advisor “he had never managed to play an important role in shaping Federal research and development policy.”
Neal Lane told me it is an unfair metric to measure a science advisor by the federal research budget alone, but for better or for worse that tends to happen. In David’s case, it was for worse: by 1973 the federal support for science had dropped to its lowest point in a decade, and it would drop again the next year. Soon after David’s resignation, Nixon simply abolished the advisor post, dispensing even with the façade of support for a scientifically defensible White House policy apparatus. A number of other scientifically relevant officials — the assistant secretary for health, the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service, even the director of the National Institutes of Health — all either resigned or were ousted around the same time.
Journalist Daniel Greenberg wrote a long essay at this time regarding Nixon’s pugnacious relationship to the scientific world. “Mr. Nixon, who is demonstrably not above grudgery, does not like the academic world, including its substantial scientific component,” he wrote, “probably for the well established reason that the academic world long ago decided that it did not like Mr. Nixon.” It is fair to say that the disconnect between science and government has never been so clearly on display.
When I asked John Holdren what it really means to “have the president’s ear” in this role, he seemed a bit agitated by the question. I had suggested that certain advisors seemed to be lauded for that influence while others disappeared into the background.
“So, you have a situation — “ He stopped, pondering. “There have been a lot of science advisors who have been more influential than they got credit for.” He told me that early in his career, he had been mentored by some of the first presidential advisors, including George Kistiakowsky (Eisenhower) and Jerry Wiesner (Kennedy). “They all told me, you get more done if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
The advisor who is willing, in Holdren’s words, to go on “beavering away in the trenches just getting stuff done,” will have more success than one who needs to be seen and heard as well. Seems reasonable, until we rephrase: furthering scientific progress can only be done effectively at the White House when it is done in the shadows.
Of course, that’s only true, again, when the president doesn’t care about scientific progress over political expedience. Our sample size is limited, but unfortunately, that order of priorities has dominated more often than one would hope.
In the aftermath of Nixon’s dismantling of the White House science apparatus, discussions soon began regarding how exactly to resurrect it. Gerald Ford eventually appointed H. Guyford Stever, former president of Carnegie Mellon University and director of the National Science Foundation, as his science advisor, reestablishing the post, while Congress chipped in with the National Science and Technology Policy and Organization Act of 1976, establishing the Office of Science and Technology Policy inside the office of the president. In some ways, though, the former influence seen by Killian, Kistiakowsky and Wiesner was gone.
Seen from another viewpoint, though, the scientific community seems to have always felt that their needs were not being well represented at the White House. In the journal Science just after Ronald Reagan was elected, an advisor to the President-Elect was said to think that “the role of science adviser was narrowed and weakened in the Carter White House.” George H.W. Bush promised to elevate the position after it had been sublimated under Reagan. President Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place.” Even as far back as 1954, when the advisor was part-time and headed up a committee to help the president, William Golden wrote to a colleague that the science advisory mechanisms “had not fulfilled the hopes” that the community had for it.
One could argue that this is just the whining of a special interest group, and that all such groups think they deserve a greater say than every other such group. Or perhaps there is a kernel of truth in the whining, and even at the best of times science’s place at the table has been a bit farther away from the head than it should be, and occasionally all the way off at the kids’ table instead.
Ronald Reagan’s first advisor, George A. Keyworth, II, offers another example of this possibility. There had been fewer complaints regarding Stever under Ford, and Jimmy Carter’s advisor Frank Press claimed in a letter to Golden that he found his “access to the President as good as that of any previous Science Adviser and better than most” (of course, this was written on Executive Office of the President letterhead, so perhaps Press shouldn’t be expected to openly complain about his boss).
Keyworth, who formerly headed up the physics division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, very quickly made clear that he came down firmly on the “cheerleader” side of our ever-present science advisor seesaw. In an interview in August 1981, he seemed to harken back to the early days when military matters dominated all thoughts of science: “The President has strong defense views and so do I. To have a dovish science adviser in this administration would not enhance his credibility.” The boss likes bombs, so I like bombs.
A few months later, Frank Press gathered more than 100 prominent colleagues to Washington to argue against budget cuts that would dramatically impact scientific research (a familiar theme, again). Keyworth pooh-poohed the angst, saying that “science in the United States is healthy today.” In Keyworth’s view, apparently, an 11 percent drop across the board in support for science was healthy. He accused the scientists of “lacking in realism.” This refrain, and others where scientific concerns were shunned in favor of political expediency, would come up again and again during his tenure: in February 1983 he defended the administration’s heavy tilt toward defense-related science funding; in June of that year, amidst further complaints about a lack of federal support, Keyworth blamed the scientists for “pork barrel squabble[s]”; Keyworth called an early report on global warming “unwarranted and unnecessarily alarmist” (sound familiar?); and so on. He even refused to comment on whether the Pentagon had spent money researching “psychic” weaponry, helpfully putting up a wall between the public and the Administration’s least scientific uses of money.
But the most glaring example of this Administration-before-science attitude by far was the Star Wars debacle. Formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, this slow-moving train wreck involved, yet again, a missile-defense system, and yet again, it was panned by scientists but championed by the White House. In the past, advisors like DuBridge had tried to walk a line on the issue, and at least weren’t seen shouting from the rooftops about it; Keyworth climbed the Washington Monument to stump for Star Wars.
The concept had several iterations, but in general it called for the use of nuclear-powered space-based lasers and mirrors (again: sound familiar?) that would shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles fired from the Soviet Union. Keyworth became known as “one of the Administration’s most ardent proselytizers for the proposal.” He called research into the concept “an absolutely vital catalyst to real arms control.”
This Stars Wars evangelism ran in the face of scientific scorn. A report prepared in April 1984 for Congress concluded that the possibility of a functional nukes-and-lasers system “is so remote that it should not serve as the basis of public expectation or national policy about ballistic missile defense.” In general, one would hope that such a scathing conclusion — shared across much of the scientific community — would hold some sway over the president’s science advisor and thus over the president. It did not.
In the end, obviously, though billions of dollars were spent and years wasted, the U.S. does not have a series of lasers in space ready to shoot down incoming missiles. Though this battle continued long after Keyworth resigned in late 1985, he seems to have been somewhat beaten down by this, or other episodes. Earlier that year, he gave a scathing interview, accusing the press — which he said was “drawn from a relatively narrow fringe element on the far left” — of “trying to tear down America.”
Keyworth’s insistence on cheerleading over scientific advocacy represents another low point in the advisor’s history, though even he had his bright spots. Funding for science did improve some over his tenure, for which (if we can again break Neal Lane’s rule regarding blame or credit) he received some accolades. It makes the assessment of this role’s impact all the more difficult. In 1975, William Golden wrote to a colleague as President Ford undertook the work of rebuilding what Nixon had torn down: “A second-rate science adviser,” he wrote, “is likely to be worse than none at all. We shall see.”
When John Holdren and I sat down in his office, it only took a few minutes of small talk before he made a bold proclamation: “I sincerely think [Barack Obama] is the most science-savvy president since Thomas Jefferson,” he said. “And there’s a lot more science to be savvy about.”
On their way out the door, Holdren’s staff at OSTP put together a collection of 100 science-related accomplishments of the Obama presidency (“We had to struggle to get it down to 100,” Holdren told me), and looking through the list it seems hard to argue his point. Obama used the stimulus spending in 2009 to inject extra billions into NIH research coffers, fostered multiple initiatives to improve STEM education, launched precision medicine programs and brain research drives, and a wide variety of other achievements — and that’s all before we get to his focus on combating climate change, one of the signature efforts of his entire presidency, if one that was stymied at many turns by a reality-denying Congress.
The focus on scientific endeavors should not, however, make anyone feel all that much better about science’s place in the White House, or the advisor’s role in establishing that place. This particular president just happened to be a science geek.
Holdren told me a story of meeting then-Senator Obama in 2007, before he ran for president. “He has a mode of deepening his understanding, which is a very effective one,” he said. “He arranges for his staff to find eight or ten of what they regard as the most interesting and best informed people in the country on a given topic, but from different perspectives, and he assembles them for a three-hour private dinner, and he conducts a dinner conversation like an orchestra conductor with these folks sitting around the table. And he extracts from them what they know and think about the topic.” Holdren was invited to such a dinner on climate change, along with other academics, an oil executive, some NGO types, and so on; he sat next to the senator, and they hit it off enough to be offered a job not long afterward. These modern-day salons clearly shaped the president’s time in office; but it isn’t how most presidents operate.
George Keyworth participated in a panel discussion in 1988, a few years after he had left the White House, and highlighted an important distinction that Holdren’s later role bore out: “People often focus, mistakenly in my opinion, on ‘access’ to the president. Assuredly this is important, but how that access is achieved is a far more central issue.” The best measure of one’s access, he said, is “how often one’s advice is sought by the President.” An advisor can’t just barge in and advise; like a vampire at your window, he must be invited in.
In the Obama White House, this was apparently a standard occurrence. The president would often read an article about some scientific topic, and issue notes to his staff: “I need to know what Holdren thinks on this.”
In other administrations… not so much. George W. Bush appointed John H. Marburger to head up OSTP, but made an unprecedented decision: he elected not to grant Marburger his second title of “assistant to the president for science and technology.” This sounds arcane, but it truly mattered; in essence, he was left hovering outside that window, unable to penetrate the president’s inner circle. Those with that “assistant” title (there are others outside of the realm of science) can write memos to the president, and can more easily make appointments to see him.
It’s hard to see Marburger’s marginalized status as unrelated to what many consider to be among the more anti-science presidencies the country has had. On issues ranging from stem cell research to global warming, Bush led the government on a merry romp through completely indefensible policy positions, and left his science advisor watching helplessly. Like many before him, Marburger managed this difficult role by sitting squarely on the fence.
On stem cells, one of the biggest controversies of the Bush presidency, Marburger said in 2004 that they “offer great promise for addressing incurable diseases and afflictions. But I can’t tell you when a fertilized egg becomes sacred. That’s not my job.” According to the testimony of other science-related positions in that administration, it wouldn’t have mattered even if it was his job; Bush’s surgeon general Richard Carmona told a Congressional committee that while on the job from 2002 to 2006, he was expressly forbidden from speaking about stem cells, contraception, mental health issues, and even health concerns related to global warming — these were deemed political issues rather than scientific issues.
That sounds ugly, but in retrospect it may be more rule than exception. When I spoke with Neal Lane in late 2016, he agreed that the incoming Trump administration “is shaping up to be as difficult as it has been in recent memory,” where science is concerned. Sounding more befuddled than I would have imagined for someone who had spent time working within Washington’s confines, he also pinpointed a fundamental problem with the science-government relationship: “Those kinds of professions, they’re really difficult for scientists to identify with, because they will say things and do things that may not reflect their belief or understanding at all.”
In other words, as long as politicians remain politicians, science is in trouble. Ed David, Nixon’s second advisor, told a story in 2005 that lays out a second major problem, regarding the way those politicians seem to view science in general. He recalled being summoned to the Oval Office to discuss a recent spate of airplane hijackings with the president and several advisors:
“The president, in effect, asked me how science could be used to stop these incidents. I had the distinct impression that he expected a final solution to be laid on the table immediately, but I’m afraid I told him rather unwelcome news, that the situation was extremely complex and there was neither a sure fix or any technological magic that I could conjure up to solve this problem.”
David saw the episode as illustrative of the political operative’s persistent idea that science represented a set “of tools with which to execute policy,” rather than anything with inherent value of its own.
The science advisor to the president will always face these sorts of obstacles, and will likely only see major success — from a purely scientific perspective — when the country’s demands match the scientific community’s focus, such as in the post-War period, or when the Oval Office occupant happens to enjoy science for science’s sake, as President Obama clearly did. Scientists heading to the White House would do well do consider Ed David’s warning: “Anyone coming to the science advisory post without considerable experience in politics is in for some rude shocks.”