Scientists always are concerned about the type of technical advice the president receives. The validity of such council and its acceptance by presidents has varied considerably over the years as described in a new book, In Sputnik's Shadow, by Zuoyue Wang, a history of science professor at California State Polytechnic University.
According to Wang, probably the most satisfying time for scientists was during the Eisenhower years, when the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) was formed. While dubious at first about the need for such a committee, President Eisenhower soon came to depend heavily on this group of about 20 prominent scientists and engineers whom he brought into the White House to advise him on military technology, space policy and arms control.
What Eisenhower appreciated the most about PSAC was not just advice on what technology could do, but more important, on what it could not do. That type of scientific skepticism is what Wang believes is the most important type of advice a president can receive. The book Physics for Future Presidents by Richard S. Muller that I reviewed in last month's column provides that type of advice.
President John F. Kennedy inherited PSAC from Eisenhower, but its importance diminished during his and the Johnson years that followed. For example, Kennedy ignored the committee's advice on both the Bay of Pigs and his Apollo (manned space exploration) decisions. The committee discouraged supporting manned programs, and Eisenhower followed that advice. Kennedy broke with that policy, and the U.S. manned-space initiatives have suffered to this day from being excessively costly with few or no scientific benefits.
PSAC was abandoned during the Nixon era and each agency's in-house scientific teams rose in importance, along with the National Academy of Sciences. In subsequent administrations a scientist has been appointed to head a White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and President-elect Obama has selected Harvard physicist John Holdren to head that office. Holdren is known for his apocalyptic views of global warming, his extreme remedies that are devoid of any economic consideration and his intolerance of skeptics, calling them "fringe deniers." Hardly the temperament for one expected to be a fair arbiter when technological disputes occur.
In light of the Holdren appointment, Obama's selection of those who will influence economic and energy policies take on added importance. Most scientists would agree that Obama has selected a strong economic team. All are well-known, highly regarded, centrist economists. They have somewhat different views on certain issues, but their stature will allow them to carry on discussions as intellectual equals. They will add some needed economic realism to Holdren's extreme remedies, and many of Obama's populist/protectionist promises made during the campaign most likely will not survive this group's scrutiny.
Steven Chu, whom Obama has selected as energy secretary, also has sterling credentials. He is the respected director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a 1997 Nobel laureate in physics. His major interest is in clean energy, and to him, that includes not only wind and sun, but also nuclear, coal sequestration and biofuels. Most important, his scientific perspective will allow him to understand and explain not only the promise of clean technologies, but also their real practical limits.
Hopefully, Chu can disabuse the president-elect of the distrust he expressed about nuclear power during the campaign. The majority of scientists believe nuclear power has to be an essential part of the mix if any significant reduction in greenhouse gases is to be achieved while still providing for future electrical needs.
The same scientific perspective cannot be attributed to Carol Browner, Obama's appointed energy "czar." During her stint as President Clinton's EPA director, she disregarded scientific research and statistical conventions that ensure research results are valid in order to support her narrow environmental objectives. An EPA audit of how the agency used science by a blue-ribbon panel of independent scientists found that "the agency lacked adequate safeguards to prevent research findings from being adjusted to fit political policies the administration wished to support." An article in the journal Science called Browner's statistical finagling "EPA's Houdini acts," and another article labeled the research climate she fostered as "leaving open the door for charlatanism and pseudoscience to flourish."
Obama said when he introduced his energy team that he is trying to obtain diversity in his Cabinet by selecting people with strong ideas. But he also said those ideas must have sound research support "where the facts have not been twisted or obscured by ideology." He surely will obtain advice of that type from his economic team, and from Chu. But the counsel provided by Browner on energy, if past behavior is a guide, will not always be free of ideological bias.
Whether or not Chu will counter such advice when it occurs, likely with no help from Holdren, will be an indicator of how well science is faring in the White House.
Garth Buchanan holds a doctorate in applied science and has 35 years of experience in operations research. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.