Science Advisor

Following his (excellent) article in Seed on the topic, my SciBling Chris Mooney blogs about the future of the position of the Science Advisor to the President, suggesting some potential names, and Matt Nisbet, RPM, Blake Stacey, Brian Switek, Scott Hatfield, Lila Guterman, Larry Moran, Mike Dunford, Flavin, c4chaos, Gordon Watts and PZ Myers chime in with their own opinions on the potential candidates.
For some reason, all the bloggers are focusing on popularizers of science and charismatic figures. But the job of a Science Advisor to the President is not really that public (unless the next President completely changes this role).
For a few decades, since the position has first been formed, the role of the Science Advisor was, well, to advise the President on scientific topics. Mooney is correct that there has been a shift in topic since then, i.e., what the most important science-related issues of the day are – from atomic energy that was really big in the 50s and 60s to the biotechnology and climate science today.
GW Bush waited almost a year – during which he did a LOT of assaults on science – before appointing poor Dr.Marburger for the role. Then, he demoted the role – the Science Advisor no longer has the ear of the President, but is relegated to some backroom to play rummy with the Origami Advisor, Interior Decorating Advisor and Dog-Grooming Advisor. Every now and then, when the Administration does something particularly egregious and the science community attacks them for it, someone goes to the back room and drags Marburger out to the microphones and cameras and instructs him to say something along the lines of “But, George Bush is a nice guy. Really. And he really likes science. He really enjoyed watching that nature show – did you see it the other day? – especially when the pack of hyenas ripped into that wildebeest. Wasn’t that cool?”
In the unlikely event that a Republican wins the elections in November, it is highly unlikely that the role of Science Advisor will get reinstated to the former level, not even by the least insane candidate, the only one who concedes that global warming is real and may be a bad thing and perhaps, just perhaps, humans may have something to do with it (McCain). When everything you stand for is against the empirical reality, why have some scientist keep reminding you that you are basing your policy decisions on fairy-tales, wishful thinking and gut-feeling?
On the other hand, all the Democratic candidates have indicated, at least indirectly, that they would reinstate the position back to the Cabinet level. Mooney reports:

The top democratic presidential contender, Hillary Clinton, has officially pledged to right the wrongs against Marburger–or at least, against his office. If elected, Hillary says, her science adviser will be named early, get the “Assistant to the President” title back, and report directly to her.

Thus, in the next Administration, the new Science Advisor will be a member of the Cabinet, will be present at all the Cabinet meetings, will talk to the President daily, and will have a direct influence on policy on a day-to-day basis. I do not see the Science Advisor as a public figure, though a public appearance may happen occasionally, perhaps to announce major science-related news from the White House. In other words, the person will not be responsible for selling science to the people, but explaining science to a reality-based President. A very, very different role.
All of the people mentioned by bloggers are completely unprepared for such a job. What is needed is someone who is well versed in science policy and politics and has a track record in administration of science and in dealing with the Congress. It does not even matter if the person is famous or a complete unknown to the general public, a highly controversial figure or someone universally liked, a theist or an atheist – none of those things are likely to ever affect the job (or the initial nomination) at any time.
So, my personal pick for the job is Harold Varmus, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his discovery of oncogenes and is a prolific researcher. He spent six years as the Director of NIH during which time he managed to persuade the Congress to double the NIH budget. He really got PubMed going, is a big proponent of Open Access, is now the President of Sloan-Kettering and he turned a dream into reality by founding the Public Library of Science. He has testified in Congress and is a very likable person and an effective speaker. He has no negatives I can possibly think of, knows his science, knows his policy/politics and is persuasive and passionate. I think he would be perfect.

12 responses to “Science Advisor

  1. I’d prefer Varmus to Collins, certainly.
    How about we make it an elected position, like Sheriff only national? Call it the Science Czar or Science Sheriff and vote on it once every two Preznidential elections. (Disclaimer: that may be the dumbest idea in the history of ideas, I haven’t thought it through AT ALL.)

  2. Perhaps not the dumbest…but comes close 😉

  3. What supports the bias of excluding those outside the human health profession to the position of Science Advisor to the Prez?

  4. There is no bias. I gave one suggestion, who happens to be biomedical type. I could have picked Jansen of NASA instead.
    It is easier for a biologist to understand physics than vice versa. Stem cell research, cloning, abortion, bioterrorism, teaching evolution in schools, environmental problems – those are much more important right now than the knowledge of nuclear physics (this issue is now firmly in the domain of policy – there is not much that scientific understanding can add to the debate).

  5. I did not indicate any preference on Sandwalk.
    My first choice would be Bruce Alberts, former President of the National Academies and about to become editor-in-chief of Science.

  6. That is correct – as I said, bloggers discussed the names that were trotted out, not necessarily suggesting new ones or endorsing anyone in particular. But they all discussed them. As I said.

  7. The future of nuclear power plants is an ’08 election issue, but perhaps it has more to do with containment, disposal and security. Besides, I specifically said human health professional not biologist. A university professor in one of the sciences might make an excellent advisor to any of our science ignorant candidates.

  8. Understanding of politics and policy, experience with D.C., and experience in administration/management are much more important than nuances of scientific knowledge. No scientist can know everything, but the Advisor will have to catch up with a little bit of everything and for that, s/he needs to be very well connected in the scientific community in order to tap into the community wealth of knowledge.

  9. I do not see the Science Advisor as a public figure, though a public appearance may happen occasionally, perhaps to announce major science-related news from the White House. In other words, the person will not be responsible for selling science to the people, but explaining science to a reality-based President. A very, very different role.

    So, do you think Chris Mooney was emphasizing the wrong thing in the conclusion of his essay?

    Any successful science adviser must also be a skilled communicator on behalf of science, to the president but also to the media and the general public. That’s why we need a “First Scientist” who can walk out of the Oval Office, ride over to address Congress, and then appear before the television cameras, all in a day’s work. At a time of contentious politicization and deep uncertainty, we need a credible science advocate in the Oval Office who can inspire not only good decision making, but public trust as well.

  10. Yes, I see that as much overstated role. But, as I noted, the new Prez is free to redefine the role of the Advisor at his/her whim, and perhaps make this role more public.

  11. This is embarrassing, but I did not even know there was a Science Advisor (probably due to the downgrading of the role in the current administration).
    Thanks for the info on McCain, also. Good to know.

  12. Although I was pushing Lawrence Krauss and Neil Tyson on other blogs, I agree with Mr. Zivkovic that Dr. Varmus would make an excellent science adviser. The following is a little anecdote about Dr. Varmus which may be of interest.
    Dr. Varmus was, and perhaps still is, a serious bicyclist, like myself, who rode a $5000 custom made Spectrum titanium bicycle on which he commuted to his job at the NIH from his residence in Cleveland Park in DC., using the Rock Creek bike route. On his first day on the job, he pulled up to the building where his office on the second floor was and started to carry the bike upstairs, obviously not being very willing to leave such an expensive item outside. He was stopped by a guard who said he couldn’t bring it in the building without the written permission of the director of the NIH. His response to this was, “I am the director!” As far as I know, Dr. Varmus took it in good humor and no action was taken against the guard.