A Rightful Place for Science. But Where Is It?

“We’ll restore science to its rightful place…”
President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address.

Where is that place?
The President didn’t say, which is fair enough, given that inaugural addresses mainly consist of chapter headings for plans and hopes. But the line drew cheers from the scientific establishment, which had long and bitterly complained of disrespect and indifference throughout the Bush administration, i.e., lack of an influential perch in high places.
The location of the right place for science in U.S. government affairs is difficult to establish. There’s a hint of an address in the 1976 statute that formally established the White House science office, but the act merely authorizes the office to advise the president and promote science. On many occasions, it’s been conspicuously ignored, and Richard Nixon even abolished a previous iteration of the office and fired its occupants, saying they were disloyal to his political agenda. The 1976 act brought it back, but the place of science in high-level governmental affairs can’t be deduced from practice, which has varied considerably from one presidential administration to another.
In its quadrennial prescription for establishing tight ties between science and the White House, the National Academy of Sciences says that the president should appoint a science advisor “immediately after the election” to advise on science and technology appointments and be on hand “in the event of a crisis.” It was nearly six weeks after Election Day that President Obama named his choice for presidential science advisor: John Holdren, a Harvard physicist and environmentalist.
Science has limited requirements for a happy relationship with government. First comes ample supplies of money, of which there is never enough, but as long as annual increases exceed inflation, the scientific leadership tends to be satisfied. Next comes a minimum of federal regulation governing the conduct of research. And, finally, the scientific establishment seeks respect and attentiveness when it addresses the intersection of science and politics.
On the final point, the Bush administration fell far short, thus leaving science feeling abused and neglected and receptive to Obama’s healing words.
Obama’s inaugural embrace of science was enthusiastically received in the ranks of government scientists and the elders of the scientific establishment. “If you look at the science world, you see a lot of happy faces,” Frank Press, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, told the New York Times, which also reported that “many scientists were exuberant.” Delight with the new president was heightened by a batch of high-class appointments to senior science positions. In addition to Holdren as presidential science advisor and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the all-star roster includes physics Nobelist Steven Chu to head the Department of Energy and Nobelist Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health, and Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, as the part-time co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. There are other senior appointments too and more to come — all likely to be of similar high caliber.
Count these appointees as a major-league dream team for science and government, but the extent of their influence in the administration is yet to be seen. In past administrations that were respectful to science, the scientific leadership was never a part of the White House inner circle and rarely had a decisive effect on heavyweight political matters. John F. Kennedy’s science advisor, Jerome Wiesner, is generally considered the most influential among all the presidential advisers. But he resigned because he felt his influence had waned. The key issues in Wiesner’s departure were his opposition to an accelerated space program, which he feared would deplete money for academic science, and Kennedy’s decision to expand underground nuclear testing.
When Ronald Reagan announced a go-ahead for the anti-missile Star Wars program — the biggest technological undertaking in U.S. history — among the most surprised was his science advisor, who was not cut in on the preparatory deliberations. In looking back on his experience as Nixon’s science advisor, Edward David once wisecracked, “You lose a few and you lose a few.” Bill Clinton was a science enthusiast, but he also was dedicated to deficit reduction. When the Superconducting Super Collider, the dream machine of particle physics, ran far over initial cost estimates, Clinton stood aside while it died in Congress, even though over $2 billion had been expended on the project. American particle physicists were heartbroken as the technological lead in their discipline passed to Europe, which went ahead with a grand new accelerator, for which the U.S. government has chipped in nearly $1 billion.
The relationship between science and the Obama administration is off to a great start, fueled by sparkling rhetoric and the provision of wads of money for research and science education in the stimulus spending plans. But it’s early in the game, and the roles of the many powerful personalities recruited for high places in the administration remain to be sorted out.
Perhaps nirvana for science has arrived with the Obama administration. But lest euphoria gets out of control, we should recall words spoken by John F. Kennedy in an address to the National Academy of Sciences one month before his death: “Scientists alone can establish the objectives of their research, but society, in extending support to science, must take account of its own needs.”

Observer Vol.22, No.3 March, 2009

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