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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Reflections of a Science Advisor: General Considerations, the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC), and the Space Station

John H. Gibbons

In the October 2005 issue of this periodical, Professor Wolfgang Panofsky provided an excellent introduction to a planned series of articles for Physics and Society designed to illuminate the intricate and sometimes obscure relations between science and technology and national policy. The interplay might be described as “war” (or forced marriage) between the two interdependent but disparate worlds of facts (science) and faith (politics). In this article, I offer some general reflections regarding this liaison, including a bit of history. Then, I focus attention on two issues that needed attention right after I joined the Clinton Administration in January 1993: the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) and the Space Station.


Science and technology (S&T) have been part and parcel of the passions of Americans since Benjamin Franklin so brilliantly and uniquely led our birth as both a democracy and an exploratory society. Right from the outset, enlightened public leadership fostered public investment in education, exploration, technology development, and intellectual property protection. The freedom of inquiry provided under the Constitution energized people to unheralded inventiveness.

As a result of many decades of sustained support, forward surges in the 20th century of discovery (knowledge) and invention (technology) dwarfed other factors affecting health, conflict resolution, and prosperity. Public support enabled S&T to blossom during World War II and to be the dominant factor in enabling advances in human aspirations. It continues unabated today, but the very success of S&T has led inexorably to the need for new forms of governance and new requirements for science literacy in our people. This need for enhanced science literacy was foreseen in a letter that James Madison wrote to W.T. Barry in 1822. Madison wrote: “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Sadly, however, science knowledge seems to be advancing faster than our science literacy, and this situation puts our democratic society at risk: To the extent that our literacy lags behind our science, we become vulnerable to the making of poor decisions. This is particularly the case for those charged with public policy decisions.

In response to the widening gap between the availability of information resources and the ability of citizens and elected officials to effectively utilize them, several actions have been taken during our history to help our citizen governors. Congress chartered the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, during the Lincoln Administration, to give better public access to rapidly accumulating scientific knowledge. It remains a vital private and non-profit asset, providing expert and non-partisan advice on technical issues of government. By the end of World War II it became clear that help which could be directly useful in framing and guiding public policies was needed. It began with William Golden’s recommendation to President Truman that a science advisor to the president be appointed. This evolved to a mostly unbroken mechanism (Congress established the Office of Science and Technology Policy [OSTP] within the Executive Office of the President) to assist the Executive Branch, followed later by the establishment of the bi-partisan, bicameral Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in the Legislative Branch. [1]

I had the unique opportunity to direct both OTA (1979-1993) and OSTP (1993-1998); some think that this extensive experience should make me “educated” in S&T policy. My response is that (1) “education consists of the progressive discovery of one’s ignorance” (Will Durant), and (2) in public policy “…science has the first word on everything and the last word on nothing” (Victor Hugo). The political importance of science derives not simply from science itself but from the implications of that knowledge for national needs (e.g., security, economy, health, environment, and knowledge itself) and social norms (e.g., stem cell discoveries). Most public policy decisions are as complex and convoluted as are the horde of stakeholders. Science, per se, is seldom the dominant factor in making a “science policy” decision. This claim is not meant to diminish the importance of scientific judgment, but rather to highlight the importance of other factors in political decision-making. The President chose to appoint me as “Assistant to the President for Science and Technology” (in addition to my OSTP title) as did President Bush in 1989 for my predecessor Allan Bromley. The visibility bestowed upon me by that title was a clear signal of the commitment of the Clinton-Gore Administration to strong support of science and technology, and to the influence of S&T considerations in the formulation of national policy.[2]

A lesson to be drawn from these reflections is the importance of the science advisory apparatus being effectively engaged in the policy decision-making process. The science advisor’s job is primarily that of bringing the content, implications, and political relevance of scientific aspects of public issues to the President in a timely, helpful, and authoritative way. A necessary but not sufficient requirement for the science advisor is to be familiar not only with the subject but also with key individuals and processes in the Administration that must be party to decisions. A close understanding of the priorities and perspectives of the President (and Vice President) was always required of me so that I could comfortably be a surrogate for them in my areas of responsibility without overtaxing my call on their time and attention. Effective communication and cooperation with Executive offices (White House, Cabinet, and sub-Cabinet agencies) is mandatory for the science advisor.

Personalities are very important! President Clinton, from the outset of his administration, had a close and comfortable relationship with Vice President Gore, and he recognized Gore’s broad, in-depth interest and understanding of science and technology. Thus, he naturally depended heavily on Gore in such matters. The bright side of that comment for me is that both championed my work, and I, in turn, enthusiastically supported their priority of using S&T to achieve over-arching goals: strenghening the economy and creating jobs, improving education and health care, enhancing the quality of the environment, harnessing information technology, and maintaining national security. They also fully supported the establishment of councils, panels, and advisors to provide themselves with wisdom on science, similar to the advisory panels successfully utilized at OTA.

Advising on Inherited “Big Science” Programs: The SSC and the Space Station

For “Big Science” projects, one presidential term – or even two – is short. When I came to the White House in January 1993 two large science policy issues were on my plate for immediate attention - the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) and the Space Station. The inauguration of a new Administration is very near the deadline for the annual federal budget to be submitted to the Congress. Both the SSC and Space Station projects were carrying a lot of political commitments and both were in serious trouble. Within only days of my Senate confirmation, I had to help devise a sensible strategy to brief and advise the President and Vice President on the status, options, and recommended actions for these projects.

(1) The SSC. In the preceding years this accelerator was a very popular project for politicians because it was viewed as a large construction project and also a way to create a massive high-tech complex aimed at extending the frontiers of science.. Almost all states weighed in to be the site of the accelerator, but Texas had just won the contest. The previously widespread political interest quickly reduced to Texas. In addition, in the previous two administrations, the notion of the United States  “going it alone” was seen as a point of national pride; therefore not much effort had been spent on recruiting substantial international financial partners. Questions now were being raised about construction management and the cost/performance of the superconducting focusing magnets. On top of these issues the new mood in the White House and Congress for more fiscal constraint made the SSC a choice target, especially since few people saw a persuasive connection between this “big science” project and broad public benefits.

The “ball” landed in my court, simultaneously with responsibility to figure out what to do about the Space Station (…more on that below). I was urged by several people, including the previous science advisor, Allan Bromley, to go quickly overseas and seek financial aid for the SSC. In my judgment such a move could have been too little, too late, in the face of a resolute attitude in Congress and genuine concern of the President to reduce expenditures in the face of an inherited $300 billion-plus deficit that, in those days, was a lot of money! At the same time it became clear that the scientific rationale for SSC was solid and that the magnet problem could be resolved. We decided to mount a modest campaign for the SSC budget but not to fall on our budget sword over it. I testified with passion [See my book This Gifted Age: Science and Technology at the Millennium, New York: Springer-Verlag, 1997, pp. 191-195] on the promise of scientific discovery and on the inevitable (but unpredictable) practical benefits that could accrue from the SSC. The effort failed in Congress, primarily because of lack of conviction about the SSC’s importance to the nation and the sharply rising resistance to federal deficits. In retrospect, one positive tradeoff of the retreat from the SSC was increased political support for sustained U.S. participation in international high-energy physics studies centered at CERN.

Lessons learned:

(a) Big Science requires Big Participation!

(b) The fiscal condition of our country bears heavily on “discretionary expenditures,” and

(c) The popularity of political support for science reflects the perceived value to our security, economy, health, and environment.

(2) The Space Station. Long-viewed as the next step in human exploration beyond the Moon, the Reagan and Bush I Administrations had pushed the U.S. Station as a challenge to the U.S.S.R.’s Cold War Space Station, i.e., as our counter to the notion of U.S.S.R. space dominance. Remember the aerospace industry-sponsored TV ads in the 1980’s depicting a massive, menacing Russian space station hovering over the Free World? By January 1993, roughly $20 billion had been spent on our design of the Station named “Freedom.” No hardware had been built. The pre-1993 design orbit for our Station had been chosen to exclude access to and from former Soviet Union territory. International participation in the venture was meager. Popularity was on the wane because the Station was seen more and more as a Cold War relic short of great scientific promise. On the other hand, the U.S. already had made a massive psychological and fiscal investment, along with political commitments.

What to do? This challenge to the new Clinton Administration had forced its way to the top of the pile of urgent matters for budgeting resources. We were committed to a strong and enduring space program but also to fiscal restraint. In the form we inherited the program it could not pass the test of scientific rationality. Accordingly, with the encouragement of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle we decided to re-orient the plans for the Station in a massive way: down-size the project, make it a truly international venture, and bring in Russia as a full partner.

Under the new cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council (NSTC)[3], a Station redesign committee was appointed by the President to reduce the size and cost (and improve safety) of the Station. Headed by Chuck Vest, then President of MIT and a member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) [4], the redesign committee comprised key experts from government, industry, and academia. Following their recommendations we worked out a new orbit to allow the Station to be serviced and controlled from launch sites in Russia as well as in the U.S. A decade later in 2003 it became clear that this change enabled the Station to survive the loss of the Shuttle Columbia. Much political and diplomatic as well as technical maneuvering and accommodation went on as the new consortium worked out a modus-vivendi. And at least as much energy was consumed in negotiations between the Clinton Administration and Congress. One key early funding measure was won by a single vote!

As the newly formed project evolved we worked out a cooperative arrangement with Russia to use their existing space station to gain joint operating experience and refine practical aspects such as equipment repair, fire control, emergency management, and environmental controls. Experience gained from the Russian station proved highly valuable; it also unexpectedly engendered a close sense of community and deep trust between the U.S. and Russian participants—on the ground as well as in orbit.

Why was so much of the oversight for this work laid upon OSTP? There was not a lot of science, per se, involved, but a lot of technology. Close communication was required among federal agencies, including NASA, State, Defense, Commerce--a natural role for OSTP to represent the President’s interest.

In summary, we won the struggle to continue support of the Space Station—the largest and most complex peacetime international venture in high technology—and built new bonds with prior antagonists. Just as we had inherited the torch from earlier administrations, we passed the torch to the next Administration.

It could be argued that we’d have been better served if the U.S. Space Station effort had been dropped as an anachronistic Cold War investment. It is instructive to think back to Jim Fletcher’s time when, as NASA Administrator under President Nixon, he virtually abandoned, with very little analysis, development of all new expendable launch systems in favor of the Shuttle (which has been a financial disaster). That decision discloses the historic inordinate emphasis on manned space exploration rather than on robotic and tele-operated space systems. I strongly pushed this latter orientation with very limited success, despite the support formalized for it in 1996 by the President and also by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin.

As later events showed, we would have lost more than gained had we cancelled the Space Station entirely. In retrospect the Space Station decision was beneficial and multifaceted in its effects: it incorporated goals of space engineering of complex systems, advances in international cooperation, a mechanism to transform a Cold War relic into an on-going contribution to U.S.-Russia relations, economic continuity in a vital U.S. sector, and technological progress.   

I chose these two examples of the SSC and Space Station to illustrate but one facet of the role of Science Advisor. In a succeeding article I will further illustrate the activities with the hope that the reader will gain appreciation of the challenges and psychological rewards of being a science advisor.

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) he 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.


[1] A lot, but probably not enough, has been written about OTA’s formation, evolution, and contributions to S&T/policy before its demise in 1995. I was tempted to pay some attention to OTA in this article but that will have to wait for another occasion. OTA was a bicameral, bipartisan agency of the U.S. Congress established in 1972 to serve its Committees as their principal source of independent, expert, and comprehensive analyses on issues involving the impacts of science and technology on society. OTA provided policy analyses that narrowed technical debates and defined and described the major options before the Congress on a given issue, and the implications of each of these options. Subjects ranged over the entire spectrum of technologies that affected, or were affected by, public policy.

[2] As “Science Advisor to the President” I was the most senior advisor to the President and Vice President on matters of science and technology policy—one of six Cabinet-level, policy level assistants to the President. As Science Advisor I also co-chaired the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology; was a member of the Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council, the National Security Council and also oversaw and was an ex-officio member of the National Science and Technology Council that also contained the functions of the National Space Council. In general, I was responsible for coordinating science and technology policy and budgets across the federal government. As the highest ranking S&T official in the Administration, I also was responsible for representing the U.S. Government in major multilateral and bilateral commissions, including the Orgranization for Cooperation and Development, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, Summit of the Americas, among the G-7 nations, the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation, the U.S.-South Africa Binational Commission, the U.S.-Japan Joint High Level Committee, and the U.S.-China Joint Commission.

[3] President Clinton established NSTC by Executive Order on November 23, 1993. This Cabinet-level Council was the principal means for the President to coordinate science, space, and technologies policies across the Federal Government. The NSTC through nine standing committees acted as a virtual agency for science and technology to coordinate the diverse parts of the Federal R&D enterprise. The NSTC was chaired by the President. Members included the Vice President, the Science Advisor, Cabinet Secretaries and .

Heads with significant S&T responsibilities (i.e., EPA, CIA, NASA, NSF, NIH, OMB, and the ACDA), and Presidential Assistants for National Security Affairs, and Economic and Domestic Policy.) OSTP Senate-confirmed Associate Directors chair the Committees.

[4] President Clinton established PCAST by Executive Order on November 23, 1993. PCAST advised the President on matters involving science and technology and assisted the NSTC in securing private sector involvement in its activities. The PCAST, which consisted of distinguished individuals from industry, education and research institutions, and other nongovernmental organizations, served as the highest level private sector advisory group for the President and the NSTC. The direct link to the activities of the NSTC reflected the Administration’s intention to incorporate advice from the private sector in developing the science and technology budgets and policies of the Administration and to secure private sector advice in the implementation and evaluation of budgets and policies. PCAST was co-chaired by the Science Advisor and a member of the private sector who was appointed by the President.  





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