TOPICS > Science

Researchers Hope Obama Team Will Reinvigorate Role of Science Adviser

BY Admin  December 26, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT

President-elect Barack Obama; file photo

Some also expressed hope that the new picks would restore
the influence of the White House science adviser position, which has waxed and
waned over the years.

Mr. Obama announced the appointments last weekend in a radio
address, in which he promised to “once again put science at the top of our

For his top science adviser, he chose physicist and Harvard
environmental policy professor John Holdren, an outspoken proponent of
alternative energy research and a critic of Bush administration science
policies. If confirmed, Holdren will serve as an official assistant to the
president as well as the head of the White House Office of Science and
Technology Policy.

“In terms of appointing top scientists to key agency
positions … we haven’t seen such highly respected scientists who have also
been outspoken conservation advocates,” Joshua Reichert, managing director
of the Pew Environment Group, told the Christian Science Monitor.

Mr. Obama also named Oregon State University marine
biologist Jane Lubchenco, who studies the effects of overfishing and climate change
on the ocean, to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

He chose Nobel laureate cancer researcher and former
National Institutes of Health head Harold Varmus, and Human Genome Project
scientist Eric Lander, to co-chair the President’s Council of Advisers on
Science and Technology — a part-time, unpaid advisory panel of prominent

With those picks, as well as with Nobel laureate physicist
Steven Chu as Energy secretary: “No president since the days of Benjamin
Franklin will ever have been so well served in matters scientific,”
physicist Lewis Branscomb, who served on advisory panels in three presidential
administrations, told the New York Times.

In fact, though every president since Dwight Eisenhower has
named a science adviser, the role and influence have differed greatly.

“[The science adviser's role] has varied with each of
the administrations,” said Al Teich, director of Science and Policy
Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “One
important factor is the science adviser’s relationship with the president. …
Another is the president’s receptiveness to advice based on science. “

Even before Eisenhower, some presidents relied heavily on
science advisers — for example, MIT engineer Vannevar Bush was a wartime
adviser to Franklin Roosevelt during the Manhattan
project era. But the official White House science adviser position was created
in 1957, in the wake of the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, when
Eisenhower named physicist and former MIT president James Killian to the newly
created position.

“The science adviser used to be a pretty important
post, almost co-equal with the national security adviser, because the advice
was really on national security,” said University of California-Merced
historian Gregg Herken, who has written a book on the history of presidential
science advisers. “Those were the salad days of science advising.”

The science advisers’ influence began to slip during the
Johnson administration, Herken said, as tensions grew over the Vietnam War,
which many scientists opposed. It reached a nadir during the Nixon
administration, when the president — angry over his science adviser’s refusal
to support the supersonic transport program and antiballistic missile defense
– fired the adviser and dissolved the advisory council.

President Gerald Ford reinstated the position and the
council, and the science adviser’s role has since expanded beyond weapons and
defense research to include a host of other issues.

“As a physicist, I really had to learn a lot of
biology,” said Neal Lane, who was
science adviser during President Bill Clinton’s second term. “The Human
Genome Project was very central to the work I did in the White House, and the
stem cell issue … fortunately I had a very good staff.”

Since the Ford administration, the science adviser has also
headed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In that role,
the adviser has a “mundane but critical” job, said David Goldston,
the former chief of staff of the House Science Committee. He makes sure the
various science agencies — such as the NIH, the National Science Foundation,
NASA and others — coordinate on issues where they have overlapping

As head of OSTP, the science adviser also advocates on
issues important to the science community. For example, Goldston said, after
the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when new visa restrictions were put in
place, OSTP was active in trying to limit the barriers those new restrictions
presented to international scientists.

In recent years, though, some critics have charged that the
science adviser’s influence has reached another low under President George W.
Bush, whose adviser, John Marburger, is a well-respected physicist and former
head of Brookhaven National Laboratory. However, he wasn’t appointed until
nearly nine months into the president’s term, and then he was not given the
title “assistant to the president,” as President Clinton’s and
President George H.W. Bush’s science advisers were.

President George W. Bush’s tenure has been marked by
criticism from scientists on issues ranging from stem-cell research to
climate-change policy to political interference with science.

Mr. Obama seemed to refer to that in his speech last week,
when he said that “promoting science … is about ensuring that facts and
evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about
listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient –
especially when it’s inconvenient.”

In Holdren, Obama has picked someone who has not shied away
from expressing strong opinions on global warming, energy policy and other

“He’s a little different [from a typical scientist]
because he’s been outspoken, but I think people have always found him rational,
reasonable and well-versed,” Ralph Cicerone, president of the National
Academy of Sciences, told the Boston Globe.

And Al Teich, science and policy programs director at AAAS,
said he believes that Mr. Obama will take full advantage of Holdren’s expertise
in those critical areas.

“Some presidents aren’t very interested, but some are
like vacuum cleaners for information, they want all they can get. One has a
sense that Obama will be one of those,” Teich said.