Politics — February 5, 2009 at 10:13 pm

Science Has Returned to the White House


With the appointment of Steven Chu to head the Department of energy, a Nobel Laureate and emminent physicist, Science returned to the White House after a long hiatus. I’ll show how revolutionary the concept of a scientist in this position is in a minute. But first, as we welcome Science back into the White House, formerly invited there by our new president, let’s take a look at just how bad things have been for the past eight years.

The Bush Administration’s diminishment of the role of Science in terms of policy-making and governing is no secret. They only recently conceded that global climate change is something worth paying attention to. They frequently sided with Big Business at the expense of Science and the environment, often going in the face of scientific evidence in the process. Perhaps their biggest nose-thumbing of Science was when they went against their own EPA staff recommendations and prevented the agnecy from regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The following is a classic first sentence of this sorry chapter in U.S. government history:

WASHINGTON, DC, July 11, 2008 (ENS) – The Bush administration today asked for public comment on a long list of options for controlling greenhouse gas emissions under existing federal law, but emphasized that it has no intention of pursuing any of them.

The list of slights to Science is long and includes restrictions of the funding of embryonic stem cell research, lack of action on promises to increase funding for basic research, and a de-emphasis on investment in alternative energy. But it is, perhaps, more illustrative (in terms of how how George W. Bush viewed the role of Science in his administration) to look at how he interacted with his scientific advisors.

One of the main advisory groups to the President of the United States is the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST). According to their website:

PCAST was originally established by President George Bush in 1990 to enable the President to receive advice from the private sector and academic community on technology, scientific research priorities, and math and science education.

The organization follows a tradition of Presidential advisory panels on science and technology dating back to Presidents Eisenhower and Truman. Since its creation PCAST has been expanded and currently consists of 35 members plus the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy who serves as the Council’s Co-Chair. The council members, distinguished individuals appointed by the President, are drawn from industry, education, and research institutions, and other nongovernmental organizations.

This is exactly the type of group we should want advising our presidents and one would think that the president would give this august group significant attention. With the George W. Bush administration, however, you would, of course, be wrong.

It took George W. Bush 10 months to get a science advisor, John H. Marburger III, nominated. It was nearly a year before PCAST was finally activated.

Okay, it took him awhile. But he made up for it, right? By listening to this group of scientists and seeking out their counsel regularly?


George W. Bush met with PCAST only five time in eight year. Although PCAST released 10 reports in the first three years, that number tapered off during the second four years of the Bush 44 administration, presumably because its members sensed the futility of their efforts. During the second term, their interactions with the Executive Office of the President and the various government agencies who could have benefited from their input also diminished significantly.

PCAST assembled a 9-page letter to the group of scientists who will be following them under the Obama administration. You can read it HERE (.pdf). In it, they have a variety of recommendations. More frequent meetings with the president, appropriate governmental agencies, and other science-related groups such as the Defense Science Board are, of course, high on that list.

But now we have Steven Chu heading up the Department of Energy. Having a scientist of Chu’s stature in this position can be seen as truly revolutionary. Let’s take a look at who has had this position before him and their background:

1977-1979 – James R. Schlesinger, Economist
1979-1981 – Charles W. Duncan, Jr., Chemical Engineer

1981-1982 – James B. Edwards, Dentist (dentist?)
1982-1985 – Donald Paul Hodel, Lawyer
1985-1989 – John S. Herrington, Lawyer

1989-1993 – James D. Watkins, Mechanical Engineer
1993-1997 – Hazel R. O’Leary, Lawyer
1997-1998 – Federico Peña, Lawyer
1998-2001 – Bill Richardson, Majored in French, Political Science and International Affairs

2001-2005 – Spencer Abraham, Lawyer
2005-2009 – Samuel W. Bodman, Chemical Engineer (and strong supporter of Vice-President Cheney’s energy proposals including drilling in ANWR and expansion of nuclear power and “clean coal” initiatives)

So, as you can see, there aren’t a lot of scientists in this group and not a single Nobel Laureate. Not only has President Obama welcomed Science back into Washingon, D.C. and the White House, he is choosing people with a strong history of supporting alternative and sustainable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to Chu, President Obama has nominated Lisa P. Jackson, a chemical engineer (yes, she’s also a scientist!), to head the EPA.

There’s more good news: unlike his predecessor, President Obama isn’t waiting around to staff his council of presidential advisors. He has already chosen Harold E. Varmous, yet another Nobel Laureate, and Eric S. Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute and a leader in human genome research.

As Will.I.Am would say, “It’s a New Day” for our country. Science is back in the White House.

I’m just sayin’…