F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
October 2006 
Vol. 35, No. 4



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Personal observations on science advice to the President

Neal Lane

In his article which introduces this series, Wolfgang Panofsky has done an excellent job of reviewing the manner in which science advice has been provided to the President over the years and has outlined some issues or “tensions” that need to be kept in mind as one examines the present system and how to improve it. His list includes: possible conflicts of interest (e.g. discipline bias) on the part of scientific advisors; the question of who “owns” the President’s Advisor (the President or Congress); accountability on the part of the Advisor to the President and Congress; access of the Advisor to the President; Science Advisor vs. spokesman for science policy; conflict of scientific advice with preconceived policy. Dr. Panofsky has suggested that the subsequent articles in this series provide detailed examples, with particular emphasis placed on what he calls “science in government”, e.g. the application by government of scientific knowledge in developing public policy. There have been a number of well publicized examples in the current G.W. Bush Administration where policy has not followed sound scientific advice. Panofsky argues that what he calls “government in science”, e.g. the Federal government’s funding and regulation of science, is less controversial, at least less politically charged. An exception, of course, is the current G.W. Bush Administration’s policy severely restricting NIH-supported research on embryonic stem cells and banning NIH support for somatic cell nuclear transfer (human cloning).

In this paper, I will limit my comments to the matter of how a Science Advisor gets his or her scientific advice to the President – personal access, in particular – and use a few examples from my own experience in the White House as well as discussions with prior Science Advisors. Since access is often connected with the other “tensions” Panofsky lists, I will comment on those as appropriate.

Fragile Visibility of the Science Advisor in the White House

First a few general observations about working in the White House, some of which, I suspect, have been invariant over time.

The White House is a very busy place. The number of issues being dealt with on any given day is enormous, and the pace is pretty much as depicted in the popular TV show “West Wing.” But, the priorities of the President’s senior staff, including the Science Advisor, and everyone else in the White House are clear – they are set by the President’s agenda. They often include such policy-related areas as national and domestic security, the Nation’s economy and employment, natural disasters and other crises, Congressional activity (or inactivity), front-page news, campaign promises and other items high on the President’s policy agenda. Whatever the President is doing on any given day is, itself, news. But the White House wants that news to be good news and carefully plans Presidential events, travel and meetings, “message” of the week or month, press communications, interactions with the Congress, and so forth, to maximize the good news for the President and his Administration. An effective White House staff works as a team to provide the President with the advice he needs to make decisions on a range of topics, often with some urgency. The Science Advisor, if he or she expects to be effective, needs to be at the table, as a valuable, reliable and trusted member of the team.

During WWII and early cold-war years, when the immediate value of science and technology required no amplification or explanation, one can understand why the Science Advisor would have more immediate and frequent access to the President. But in recent decades, the single-focus threat of the Soviet Union faded and, simultaneously, science and technology emerged as fundamental to many areas of societal importance and national need, e.g., energy, health and medicine, environmental protection, economic competitiveness (including Federal R&D funding and regulation as well as tax laws and trade relations). Under such circumstances, more decisions were being made at the agency level, and often the President was only peripherally involved. Certainly, there have been exceptions, e.g. some of former President G.H.W. Bush’s initiatives (global change research, information technology, biotechnology) and those of former President Clinton (climate change science and technology, Kyoto negotiations, and the National Nanotechnology Initiative, among others). These involved the Science Advisor, but they also required more consensus building among the President’s advisors on economic, domestic, environmental and national security policy, all of whom are perceived as having portfolios that are more “politically” important than that of the Science Advisor.

Access to the President

Let me turn now to the importance of the Science Advisor having personal access to the President. Given the fact that White House science policy is no longer focused on a single issue – nuclear weapons and strategy – but rather relates to a host of other policy issues, hence to the work of most of the President’s other advisors, one challenge is simply not to get lost or ignored in the huge array of topics of everyday business and the cacophony that surrounds the President. The Science Advisor can be effective only if he or she can be sure that his or her advice – untouched by others – actually gets to the President. The title “Assistant to the President” is very helpful in that regard, since it sends the message that the Science Advisor reports directly to the President.

In addition to the formal title, the White House staff and agency officials also need to know that the President considers science and technology to be important and that the President wants to see his Science Advisor from time to time. But, of course, having access does not mean dropping by. The President’s calendar is a competitive arena with lots of participants; and the President’s scheduler has to determine the relative priorities of competing requests for appointments, speeches, interviews, trips and other demands on the President’s time. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) staff are good at identifying possible science and technology events, budget initiatives, policy innovations, and other opportunities for the Science Advisor to get the President’s attention on some important matter of science policy. If this sounds a little like marketing, that perception would not be far off the mark.

In addition to having personal access to the President, it is also important for other senior advisors around the President (the other “Assistants”) to understand something about the Science Advisor’s issues, why they should be important to the President, and the rationale for science-based recommendations.

That requires that the Science Advisor establish a good working relationship with the other Assistants. One way to do that is to offer the services of OSTP to help them with their issues. The President’s advisors serve him best if they work as a team and reach consensus on important issues. As mentioned above, when the advisors disagree, they need to be able to provide the President with reasoned arguments for their different opinions and recommendations. A balance between collegiality and assertiveness is required.

In my own case, as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, I was assured direct access at the outset, initially by the Vice President and later by the President himself. I found that I was able to establish very good working relationships with President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and senior White House staff. In large measure this was because my predecessor, Jack Gibbons, who was particularly close to Vice President Gore, had assembled a fine staff, and had produced high quality products and valued advice. Gibbons’ legacy enormously facilitated my ability to function effectively.

It was also fortuitous that President Clinton’s Chief of Staff during the latter part of the Administration, John Podesta, was (and still is) personally interested in science and technology, which he had studied in school. He was particularly helpful in advising me on the workings of the West Wing, which allowed me to move forward with some issues I felt were particularly important (e.g., research budgets).

I should also note here that the late Allan Bromley, who was the first Science Advisor to have the title “Assistant to the President for Science and Technology”, also understood the importance of having a good working relationship with the President’s Chief of Staff. Indeed he worked well with John Sununu and, as a result, was able to establish a very good relationship with former President Bush.

The importance of access also includes the OSTP Associate Directors (Senate confirmed Presidential appointees) and their staff, who assure the effective operations of OSTP in several ways: working with the agencies and scientific community to get accurate information, e.g, by developing and coordinating interagency programs; advising the Office of Management and Budget staff on science and technology components of the budget; and helping to educate their counterparts in the other policy councils (economic, domestic, national security) and offices of the White House about the science and technology issues and their importance to important policy considerations. Doing all this successfully requires outstanding individuals who have access to the appropriate people in other parts of the White House and agencies. Usually, the Science Advisor briefs the President, but on occasion, while I was serving in the White House, other OSTP staff would be included. I was fortunate to have outstanding staff during the time I served at OSTP, most of whom had been recruited by Jack Gibbons.

In the end, it must be recognized that the President’s agenda is always oversubscribed. Personal access to the President is a privilege that should be used sparingly. In my own case, I requested personal meetings with the President on rare occasions and was always granted those meetings. Most of my direct interactions with President Clinton were to brief him on some upcoming meeting, interview, speech, or other timely matter. On a few occasions, there was time to chat about whatever was on the President’s mind – on one occasion, dark matter and black holes, on another, some geological features in Antarctica – or a policy issue that was pending. Those meetings were as frequent as several in a single week; on other occasions weeks could pass without my seeing the President. I sent the President weekly reports, which he always read, often making marginal comments (which his private Secretary, Betty Curry, would sometimes have to help decipher). On some matters, he would have questions or would request a more complete memorandum on a topic. He seemed to read and digest everything he saw.

A few specific examples from the Clinton Administration

Perhaps the points made in the earlier paragraphs can be best illustrated with a few examples of how particular policy matters were handled during the time I served as President Clinton’s Science Advisor (from the summer of 1998 to mid- January 2001).

President Clinton’s National Nanotechnology Initiative

The first example, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), is one of “government in science” rather than the other way around. But it illustrates several of the points I have made about personal access to the President, teamwork with other Assistants to the President and Federal agencies, and the importance of identifying and “marketing” an initiative.

The motivation and the rationale for the NNI, with its bold set of “grand challenges” and the doubling of Federal funding for nanometer-scale science and engineering research, was twofold: to promote a promising, perhaps potentially revolutionary new technology of the future and to increase research funding of the physical sciences and engineering. The history of the NNI has been recounted elsewhere (Neal Lane and Thomas Kalil, in “Issues in Science and Technology,” Summer 2005, p 49-56, National Academies and University of Texas at Dallas) so I will only briefly summarize it. The NNI was a grass-roots effort, built on years of impressive research leading to new knowledge and tools at the nanometer scale. Before the White House got formally involved, NSF and other agencies convened (in 1996) an interagency working group, which (in 1998) was raised to the Presidential level, under the authority of the National Science and Technology Council, formally chaired by the President. That body developed a proposal to the President for the NNI. It was reviewed by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which, along with the Science Advisor, recommended the Initiative to the President. My involvement with the NNI, as Science Advisor, was to work closely with several key people and organizations: the technical advisor to the National Economic Council, Tom Kalil, who reported to Gene Sperling, one of the President’s key senior advisors; the interagency coordinating group, chaired by NSF’s Mike Roco; the Office of Management and Budget; and PCAST, which I co-chaired with John Young (former President and CEO of Hewlett Packard). I briefed the President at several budget meetings (…including one to which I had not been invited!) and formally recommended the NNI to the President along with unprecedented increases in overall research funding, which he included in his budget request for FY2001. While there was much support for the NNI and increased funding for the physical sciences, in general, among White House Advisors, there were also some strong feelings about other budget needs, which resulted in some heated internal debates and some personal scars and bruises.

Nuclear Missile Defense

My second example, nuclear missile defense, is an example of “science (and technology) in government”.

Ballistic missile defense has been a politically divisive issue and an area of questionable policy, at least since President Reagan rolled out his “Star Wars” proposal in 1983. The APS, based on a study carried out by the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA), took a strong stand, questioning the technical capability of any effort to put in place a shield to protect the U.S. from ballistic missile attacks. In recent years, the U.S. military has scaled back its efforts, adding the word “Limited.” In 1996, DOD’s Ballistic Missile Defense Office was tasked to develop a deployable system within three years; and President Clinton, under pressure from a Republican controlled Congress, agreed that he would make a decision by the year 2000 on whether to deploy the system. While the principal White House responsibility for advice on military matters rests with the National Security Council (NSC), OSTP was expected to provide advice on the “technical capability” of such systems; and that occurred during the time I was in the White House. A string of failed tests of system components were highly publicized. Also, APS and many other organizations and individuals criticized the proposals on the grounds that rather straight forward countermeasures could be deployed to further reduce the system’s defensive capability. Members of the OSTP staff who were knowledgeable about defense technology and missile defense, in particular, developed briefing material, in cooperation with NSC staff, and arranged meetings with appropriate government officials. On the basis of those briefings and staff recommendations, I sent the President a classified assessment of the technical capability of the proposed system. The memo was shared with the NSC in advance to assure factual accuracy, as well as to avoid surprises, but it was not subject to clearance or editing by NSC staff. I am not aware that there were any substantial differences in the views of OSTP and NSC on the technical assessment. The President, weighing all the advice he received, decided that it was not appropriate to deploy the system at that time. The G.W. Bush Administration has deployed a limited missile defense system, in spite of further failed tests and technical criticism. The arguments appeared to be “get it up and work out the bugs later!” It is not clear whether OSTP had any role in advising President Bush on his decision.

These are two among many examples that illustrate how at least one of President Clinton’s Science Advisors advised the President. Other advisory issues included: stem cell research and human cloning; a string of failed NASA Mars missions; a string of failed expendable launch vehicles (rocket) mishaps; food safety and environmental (lead, mercury, arsenic) regulations; the international space station; U.S. participation in the Large Hadron Collider accelerator construction and experiments; human genome project; gene patenting, energy R&D and tax incentives to promote energy efficiency; genetically modified foods and crops and related trade negotiations, Kyoto follow-up negotiations; international S&T agreements; science and security at DOE weapons laboratories; disposal of nuclear waste; science and engineering education and workforce issues; and others.

My conclusion, at least my experience, is that the Science Advisor remains a key advisor to the President. But, perhaps, unlike the early cold-war days, the Science Advisor has to compete for attention with other players whose agendas are often of more immediate political importance.

Dr. Neal Lane, Malcolm Gillis University Professor at Rice University, holds appointments as Senior Fellow of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

 Prior to returning to Rice University in January 2001, Dr. Lane served in the Clinton Administration as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and before that as Director of the National Science Foundation.

 He was Rice’s Provost and Professor of Physics prior to his time in Washington.





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