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Science Advisors Past and Present Gather at APS Centennial

Science advisors past and present take a breather from policy issues at the APS Centennial meeting in Atlanta: (from left) Jack Gibbons, D. Allan Bromley, Bill Graham, Jay Keyworth, Frank Press, Guy Stevers, Ed David, and Don Hornig. Photo by: Steven J. Swieter of Swieter Images
Science advisors past and present take a breather from policy issues at the APS Centennial meeting in Atlanta: (from left) Jack Gibbons, D. Allan Bromley, Bill Graham, Jay Keyworth, Frank Press, Guy Stevers, Ed David, and Don Hornig. Photo by: Steven J. Swieter of Swieter Images

Former presidential science advisors from the days of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the present gathered at the APS Centennial meeting in Atlanta for a special panel discussion on science policy past and present, reminiscing about their days in the White House with an eye to the future. [Current science advisor Neal Lane was scheduled to participate in the historic gathering, but was called back to Washington; his remarks were presented via videotape.]

Although session chair D. Allan Bromley joked that US President Thomas Jefferson had the best science advisor — namely, himself — and presidents have long sought scientific counsel, yet the position of national science advisor did not become official until James Killian was appointed to that post under Eisenhower. And while the role has changed since then, some common issues and concerns have endured. Don Hornig, who succeeded Killian under Eisenhower in 1960, recalls his tenure being dominated by three major issues: the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the space program, and basic research and education. The Vietnam War overshadowed the White House during the time that Ed David served under President Richard Nixon. He also found himself struggling with the onset of the energy crisis with the Arab oil embargo against the US, as well as setting NASA R&D priorities in the wake of the Apollo program's success. Guy Stever, who served under President Gerald Ford, came on board when the energy crisis was at its peak. "We were just beginning to realize that the environment, energy, and economic problems were all interwoven and we still haven't solved them," he said. "It may be the unfulfilled promissory note that the science and technology community has handed to society."

Frank Press, science advisor under President Jimmy Carter, found himself struggling to improve government ties to American industry and raise the Administration's awareness of issues of competitiveness and innovation. Concern over American industry's flagging competitiveness also figured prominently during the tenure of Jay Keyworth, science advisor to President Ronald Reagan. His White House days coincided with the emergence of a solution to the problem with the rise of the Silicon Valley computer industry. Keyworth's successor, Bill Graham, found himself extending economic concerns to fostering technology transfer between academia and industry, and to making government-sponsored innovations available to the commercial sector for development, triggering a critical shift in traditional science policy. "Until that time, the idea had been that government discoveries were public property and available to anyone," he said, unlike the commercial sector, which seeks to patent innovations.

As science advisor to President George Bush, Bromley found himself fostering international collaboration in science and technology, most notably through the formation of the Megascience Forum — a commitment further strengthened by the demise of the Superconducting Super Collider. Much of Jack Gibbons' efforts as science advisor to President Bill Clinton focused on developing a post-Cold War paradigm for national science policy, specifically the role and rationale for public support of science and technology — an issue which became more critical as reduction of the bloated national deficit moved to the forefront of the Administration's national priorities. Maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile was another concern, along with bioethics, global climate change and population growth.

Today, the full impact of the end of the Cold War on federal funding priorities can be clearly seen. According to Lane, high technology accounts for more than half the growth of the gross domestic product (GDP), as well as most of the capital gains tax revenue. Information technology alone accounts for 80% of stock market capitalization.

Not surprisingly, the position of presidential science advisor comes with an equal mix of successes and frustrations. Hornig struggled with the diversion of the Vietnam War, but cites the creation of the Korean Institute of Science and Technology as one of the highlights of his tenure. David, a pioneer of speech recognition in computers, laments that he was unable to introduce computers to the White House during his stint, although they are now integral to government operations. As for successes, "I'm proudest that I managed to survive," he joked. Stevers regrets the stalled talks with the Soviet Union due to increasing pressure on Nixon from the Watergate scandal, but considers his work re-establishing the Office of Science and Technology in the White House under Ford as his greatest success. Keyworth bemoaned the decline in trust between Congress and the scientific community, but found satisfaction in the creation of NSF research centers and the founding of the Presidential Young Investigator program.

Graham was disheartened by what he termed "the ineffectiveness of the national constituency formed by people in scientific fields," but said his "greatest pleasure was the sure knowledge that I was working for a man [Reagan] who had an unshakeable belief in the importance of S&T to the development of the future strength of the US" Bromley mourned his failure to convince the State Department of the importance of S&T to US foreign policy, and gained the most satisfaction from the success of the reinvigorated Federal Coordinating Council for Science Education and Technology (FCCSET). For Gibbons, a major frustration stemmed from what he termed the "political Newtonian principle" — "For every action there is a more than equal and opposite reaction in a finely tuned political process" — which hampers progress in government. Gibbons told an amusing story of an April Fool's joke during a morning staff meeting, successfully duping his White House colleagues into believing that the Antarctic ice sheet was melting and would soon flood the globe's oceans. Lane's recounting of frustrations and highlights remains to be told, but he did identify the need to establish funding criteria and priorities for science, as well as achieving greater diversity in the S&T workforce, as critical areas of concern for the future.

The panelists have taken interesting career paths following their stint in the White House, and remain at least minimally active in science policy. Hornig went on to serve as vice president of Kodak, president of Brown University and finally as professor of chemistry in Harvard's School of Public Health. David joined the staff at Exxon and spearheaded the construction of the company's R&D center. Press went on to head the National Academy of Sciences, and is currently a consultant and partner in a newly formed international consulting group. Keyworth has founded a handful of Silicon Valley and Web technology firms, along with a public policy foundation in Washington called the Partners in Freedom, devoted to understanding the new digital economy. Graham recently served on the Congressional commission to assess the ballistic missile threat, which issued its report last July. Bromley returned to Yale and is currently rebuilding its engineering department, and also served as APS President. Gibbons is now the Karl Compton lecturer at MIT. As for Stevers, following the end of his stint as science advisor, "I vowed never to work for anybody else full-time again. And I didn't."

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette