Reflections of a Science Advisor: Approaches to Science Advice
and Policy Formulation, and a Few Vignettes
John H. Gibbons
Part I of my tale of science and governance (Physics and Society, October, 2006) offered some general reflections on the two interdependent but disparate worlds of science and politics with a brief discussion of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) and Space Station decisions. In Part II, I offer a few examples of approaching policy-making from a comprehensive perspective rather than from isolated considerations.
I suspect that my experience as a physicist (to think in terms of comprehensive solutions and in terms of cause and effect) and my responsibilities as Science Advisor (to work on very broad issues of national scope) strongly nudged me to approach challenges from a “systems” perspective rather than taking isolated actions. I offer here four examples of such an approach:
(1) Energy/Climate/Transportation: The Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV). During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton and Al Gore emphasized the importance of government’s role in trying to solve the knotty, related problems of air pollution, climate change, and dependence on foreign oil. It was clear to us that governmental analysis was necessary, but by no means sufficient, for addressing these problems. We consequently devised an integrated action strategy for a public-private partnership. Within a month after Clinton’s inauguration we created a public-private research and engineering partnership to develop, within a decade, a new generation of cars that would have much greater fuel efficiency, would be safe and economically competitive, would have low emissions, and could be manufactured and sold at a competitive price. Such an advance would require forming a working, cost-sharing, decades-long partnership among federal agencies, industry, and academia. The resulting “Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles” (PNGV) advanced U.S. capabilities in part because of the sustained interest and support from the President, and especially the Vice President. This initiative was ably steered at OSTP by Henry Kelly, and it was also aided by annual independent reviews and critiques carried out under a special committee of The National Academies. Sadly, some of the technical advances (especially hybrid systems) that resulted were not capitalized upon by U.S. industry. Subsequently, Japanese manufacturers passed us by. Still, as one auto industry executive confided in me in 1999, the PNGV work helped advance the U.S. auto industry’s technical capability (in cutting fuel requirements and air pollution) ahead by several years.
(2) Florida’s Challenge: The Everglades. My second example is also national in scope but regional in focus. Owing to decades of actions by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, highway construction, agricultural industry practices, and urbanization, the southern half of Florida is beset with water pollution (mostly salt water intrusion and agriculture run-off) and a drying up of the Everglades. There has been an associated loss of the invisible but vital underground flow of fresh water down the Florida peninsula. We tackled the challenge from a systems perspective out of which came several complementary changes in public policy, including elimination of canals and dikes, tougher pollution standards (especially for sugar production), and more conservative pumping of groundwater.
(3) Mississippi River Basin Flooding. In pre-historic times, this great river basin nourished the land through periodic flooding. Because of continuing abuses associated with various public policies, the river system has lost its capability to replenish the land along its banks and offshore below the Delta. Huge areas are so poisoned by the gunk brought downstream that a large area of the once biologically rich Gulf waters are anoxic and barren. To contain floods, dikes and levees were built to compress the river and deny it an opportunity to spread its floods and silt more gently over the land. The effects of these and other ill-conceived human actions are increasingly devastating. Yet effective technical solutions lie largely fallow for want of sound state and federal policy decisions. The Administration’s work led by OSTP through its National Science and Technology Council focused on integrating the talents in multiple federal agencies with regional and local jurisdictions. For example, following the floods in the mid-1990’s, we helped develop viable policies for small towns to relocate beyond the flood plain and dedicate the flood-prone areas to pastures and woodlands that were more flood-tolerant.
(4) The Pacific Northwest Challenges. Uncoordinated attempts to use natural resources of forests, fresh water (flood control, irrigation, electricity generation), and fish (especially salmon), have led to degradation of the land and depletion of highly valued fish (again, especially salmon). Over-harvesting of timber has threatened wildlife and degraded spawning grounds, and impoundments have caused devastating losses of migrating fish. Again, with active engagement of the President and Vice President, we helped broaden awareness of the related issues and the practical opportunities. Through cooperation, we applied best scientific practices and integrated the agency resources of agriculture, energy, and forestry across a multi-state region with the goal of more sustainable development.
A Few Other Vignettes
Within the Clinton Administration the science advisor’s role was sometimes ad hoc, direct and personal (e.g., my recommendations to the President on high-level S&T appointments; my representing the United States in international meetings of science ministers) and sometimes more formal (such as my membership on the President’s National Science and Technology Council, my co-chairing of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, and my helping to establish the National Bioethics Advisory Commission). These more formal entities enabled our Administration access to a rich source of public and private sector national wisdom on critical issues. I note here that this kind of help works best when the political leaders recognize that the sharing of information and concerns, not the sequestering of the same, can be a great source of power and influence. Here are a few examples of such activities:
(1) Nuclear Testing. A moratorium had been placed on testing for several years, but proposals to resume nuclear testing soon came from within the new Administration. Two reasons were proffered: first, to make existing warheads less susceptible to fire, and second, to gain more confidence in reliability as warheads aged. Subsequent discussions in which I was engaged concluded that the alleged fire safety hazard could be resolved without nuclear explosions, and also that there were alternative ways to assure non-degradation of aging warheads. After considerable negotiations and technical discussion, we worked out a consensus at the cabinet level (National Security Council), easing the burden of the President’s decision to halt further efforts to resume testing. I did not realize at the time that our proposed “stockpile stewardship” program later would be transformed into such an expensive activity. Some forms of institutional momentum are exceedingly resilient!
(2) U.S.-Russian Cooperation on Disposition of Fissile Materials. I asked John Holdren (a member of the President’s Advisory Committee on Science and Technology (PCAST)) to lead an analysis for the President on the most promising ways for U.S. and Russia to cooperate on protection and disposition of fissile nuclear weapons materials.
The challenge of plutonium disposition is more complex than that for uranium, but the two most plausible options are (a) to mix oxides of plutonium and uranium in the right proportion to be fuel for reactors (MOX); or (b) blend the weapons plutonium into high-level waste from power reactors to make it irretrievable. We suggested to the President that he keep both options on the table since at that time we favored option (a), but Russia favored option (b). The analysis took several months to complete. Less than two weeks after John Holdren briefed the President and Vice President (an hour in the Oval Office), President Clinton met with President Yeltsin, and the plutonium issue was successfully addressed by the two. If we had pushed exclusively for our favored option and/or the Russians for theirs, the issue could have been frozen. Through agreement to proceed with disposition with either one or the other options as national choices, progress on plutonium sequestration/disposition continues. In the succeeding months of our Administration we had an opportunity to purchase from Kazakhstan about a half-ton of weapons-grade uranium (U-235). In the fall of 1994 it was airlifted to Oak Ridge, denatured with U-238 to become reactor-grade, and transformed into fuel elements for power reactors—a universally agreed method of disposition of enriched uranium. My task was to help arrange for the interstate transfer, quietly, of the material into Tennessee.
(3) Cooperative Research and Development Foundation (CRDF). Reflecting the Administration’s interest in fostering progress in American-Russian relations in the wake of the Cold War, the Vice President co-chaired discussions with his counterpart in Russia (and later with other countries) and then inaugurated a series of bilateral cooperative activities. I chaired the U.S. side on S&T cooperation, and many fruitful projects emerged. We soon recognized that the desperate state of support for science in Russia could be aided greatly through very modest funding support. Our aim was to seek funds to support Russian scientists who sought to change their work from defense-related to basic and civilian research focused on cooperation with U.S. scientists. At OSTP we were able to scrounge support from the DOD (Nunn-Lugar), the National Science Foundation, and George Soros (private citizen) to create an ad hoc pool to support multi-national, non-defense-related R&D. The concept, the Cooperative Research and Development Foundation, has proven to be much more successful than we anticipated—another example of the encouragement by the President and the Vice President for the science advisor’s office to integrate resources from multiple agencies and the private sector. CRDF remains active and productive today.
(4) National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC). At OSTP we saw the rapid advances in biology and genetics coming fast. However, there was insufficient expertise within OSTP for the Administration and Congress to tap for clear understanding and thoughtful response of not only the technical, but also the societal, implications for public policy. With bipartisan support from the Senate and at the request of the President and Vice President, I put together a charter and nominees for the President, modeled after PCAST. A year later in 1996 NBAC was up and running—only a few months before “Dolly”, and the age of cloning, was born. NBAC’s first task was to report to and advise President Clinton on the matter. The Commission still exists in the Bush Administration, albeit with a different name and membership.
(5) Global Climate Change: The Kyoto Protocol. From the start of the Clinton-Gore Administration, we recognized global climate change (GCC) as a massive looming issue. At OSTP I used one of my four available Associate Director positions for “Environment,” recruited Bob Watson for that post, and also Rosina Bierbaum who had led the GCC assessment at OTA in the late 1980’s. We worked closely with other Executive offices and agencies on improving knowledge of the dynamics and likely consequences of GCC—technical, economic, political and social. Bob Watson undertook leadership on intergovernmental cooperation in research and analysis of climate change, and Rosina Bierbaum helped pull the work together into a coherent, policy-relevant framework for key people in the Administration and Congress. When the group briefed Clinton and Gore prior to the meeting in Kyoto, I argued for a multi-decade time frame for action, reflecting the long-time required for an orderly infrastructure and technological change. Others pushed for action on a shorter time scale. The President agreed with my technical logic but decided on a 10-15 year target because he knew that a longer-term goal, however logical, would be fully discounted in political decision-making. I believe that he and I were both correct!
These vignettes are but a few of the myriad activities that flooded our agenda during my tenure of about five and a half years. Due to time and space constraints, I omitted in this article discussion of other major responsibilities that I had, such as S&T budgets, arbitration of interagency disputes over proposed regulations, and selection of key technical personnel for sub-cabinet positions and members of commissions (e.g., NIH, NSF, Energy, Commerce, DOD, Interior, State). Very few days passed in which my planned activities schedule wasn’t changed! I found myself constantly stretched to the limit in technical knowledge and political wisdom. As I told a university president and friend of mine, my former experience in both physics and federal service were invaluable aids.
Finally, one of my best moves was to recommend my esteemed friend and colleague, Neal Lane, to succeed me. A flow of capable people is the lifeblood of good government!
Dr. John H. “Jack” Gibbons, President, Resource Strategies, and Chairman of the Board, Population Action International, is a member of advisory and working committees of The National Academies, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others. Following White House tenure (1993-1998) served as the Karl T. Compton Lecturer, MIT; Senior Advisor, U.S. Department of State, and Senior Fellow, National Academy of Engineering. Before he served in the Clinton Administration as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Dr. Gibbons was Director of the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)(1979-1993). During the early 1970’s “energy crisis” he initiated and directed the first work on energy conservation and policy for the federal government. See also johnhgibbons.org.