Volume 87 Issue 3 | p. 54 | Insights
Issue Date: January 19, 2009

Presidential Science Advice

Advisory Council's prestige waned under Bush, but may revive with Obama
Department: Government & Policy
Many question how much access to Bush Marburger (right) had.
Credit: White House
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Many question how much access to Bush Marburger (right) had.
Credit: White House

MUCH HAS BEEN MADE of the idea that President George W. Bush appeared to spend very little time worrying about science and technology. His lack of any real action on global climate change, the lip service to providing additional funds for basic science, and his refusal to change his decision to restrict federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells are among the widely recognized slights to science over the past eight years.

A recent letter from the Office of Science & Technology Policy on the activities of the President's Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) under the Bush Administration includes information that strengthens the view that Bush did not place a high priority on science during his years in the White House.

PCAST is the group offering the highest level of independent science and technology advice to the President and to the federal departments. The advisers are senior executives drawn from industry, education and research institutions, and nongovernmental organizations. The establishment of this kind of advisory group follows a tradition that goes back to at least the Administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman.

The letter is from presidential science adviser John H. Marburger III and E. Floyd Kvamme, who served as cochairs of the council. Kvamme is a partner at the high-tech venture capital firm of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers. It is a brief summary of the activities of PCAST over the past seven years, including procedural points and a list of reports. It also provides useful information for the members of the next council.

But when reading this letter, one gets the feeling that PCAST did not often capture the President's ear. First, the council was not even launched until December 2001, nearly 11 months after Bush was sworn into office. It took Bush 10 months just to get a science adviser—Marburger—appointed.

Most surprisingly, the letter says that during the seven years of operation, the council met formally with Bush only five times.

Bush's PCAST was organized to examine the role of technology in the U.S. economy because technological developments were increasingly impacting the performance of the economy and every sector of the government, the letter states. The listing of reports prepared by the council bear this out. Starting with a study on technology at the Department of Homeland Security, the council investigated computer broadband capacity, the U.S. electrical system, nanotechnology research, and technology transfer in its first couple of years. The council wrote 10 reports in the first three years of work.

After this, the numbers dropped off dramatically. Over the next three years, only three reports were completed. In its final year, 2008, most of the activity consisted of reassessments of earlier reports and updates. The Marburger-Kvamme letter notes, too, that over time, about a quarter of the PCAST members became inactive, although it gives no reasons why.

The council met formally with the President only five times.

One possible reason is that many of these leaders of U.S. technology became disenchanted with the job. Besides rarely meeting with the President, PCAST did most of its work in small committees, where experts were consulted via e-mail. The group met with other executive branch offices and members of other agencies, but even these meetings were more frequent in the first few years of the Administration, decreasing in later years, the letter says.

Another change was that PCAST was expanded from 22 to 35 members early on. This happened because of additional reporting responsibilities requested by the President and stemming from new legislation on nanotechnology and information technology. In hindsight this was viewed to be too large a group, and the letter recommends a smaller council in the next Administration.

That said, with regard to science advice a marked difference between the start of the Bush years and the new Obama Administration can already be seen. Instead of waiting nearly a year before putting a science adviser in place, Obama has already named his choice—Harvard University physicist and climate-change proponent John P. Holdren (C&EN, Jan. 5, page 9).

Even more surprising, Obama has announced whom he wants to lead his council of presidential advisers—Nobel Prize winner Harold E. Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Eric S. Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute and a leader in human genome research. In naming two prominent biological scientists to cochair PCAST, Obama may be looking for more active leadership on problems of health care, education, and research policies. This would be a major change from the industrial technology focus of the past Administration.

The PCAST letter by Marburger and Kvamme concludes that the important role played by science and technology in our society cannot be overemphasized. President Bush, preoccupied with national security, the war in Iraq, and, recently, a collapsing economy, never seemed to give science that kind of importance. So, while it may only be window dressing, the early appointment of science advisers by Obama at least gives the impression that science and engineering will have a louder voice in the next Administration.

 

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

 
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