Science Policy Up Close
Science Policy Up Close traces the high points of John Marburger’s career from president of Stony Brook University to director of Brookhaven National Laboratory, and later, science advisor to President George W. Bush. The book, focused, as Marburger put it, on “policy in action,” is part retrospective on science policy and part memoir laced with biographical information and speeches. It is inconsistent in structure and content, by necessity, due to his death in 2011 after completing the first two chapters. At Marburger’s request, his longtime colleague Robert Crease, professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University, completed the book by ably editing materials from Marburger’s speeches, writings, and interviews, and providing context and commentary through introductions to the material in the remaining four chapters.
The book is indeed about policy in action—the challenges of dealing with complex and controversial issues, with various advocates pursuing diverse, often strongly held, positions and outcomes. In that respect, the book provides a glimpse of science policy making, administration of science and technology programs, and conflict resolution at the highest levels. But for those looking for insights into thought processes, perspectives on interpersonal interactions, or glimpses of internal White House advice and deliberations, Science Policy Up Close will seem somewhat distant. However, through the course of his career, John Marburger was an up-close participant and influenced major science and technology policy decisions involving everything from the decommissioning of the Shoreham nuclear power pant to funding for the proposed Superconducting Super Collider particle accelerator, to the future of Brookhaven National Laboratory, and more broadly, to the distribution of funding for the federal research and development (R&D) enterprise. The book portrays the diverse experiences of an accomplished physicist, administrator of complex scientific and engineering programs and institutions, and manager of people—and there is much to glean from Marburger’s personal accounts and Crease’s compilations and insightful commentary.
In the preface, Marburger points to his “ability to deal with people in an objective and productive way,” and his skill at resolving conflicts involving science and technology programs and projects. In the book’s initial chapters, he underscores the value he places in working to understand diverse perspectives and identifying a path forward. For example, in the first chapter, he describes his efforts to resolve the dispute over the future of the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island as head of the commission established by New York Governor Mario Cuomo. He proved to be an effective mediator, in part due to his respect for others, patient listening skills, and belief that the range of views on an issue should be given a full hearing.
In the second chapter, Marburger provides a detailed accounting of the factors leading to the demise of the Superconducting Super Collider from his vantage as chair of the board of trustees of the University Research Association, the group managing the project. He points to what he calls the Principle of Assurance—the need to ensure public accountability on large scientific facilities and projects through transparency on costs, scheduling, and performance—as a general objective that he pursued in later high-level positions.
The third chapter continues with the theme of conflict resolution and consensus building as Marburger, the new director of Brookhaven National Laboratory, responds to public uproar over a leak of radioactive water from a reactor at the laboratory. As in other controversies he dealt with throughout his career, Marburger’s strategy for resolution began with developing a narrative in which all sides could see themselves. Then he worked to craft a resolution that reflected elements of multiple perspectives. Chapters four and five are dedicated to his activities as science advisor to President George W. Bush and as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in each of the president’s two terms.
Early in his tenure, Marburger made organizational changes at OSTP in an effort to focus the office on a smaller number of policy issues. Critics viewed his streamlining of objectives skeptically, believing this would limit the influence of the office. Indeed, he did focus on a more limited policy agenda. He argued that such controversial issues as climate change and embryonic stem research were not primarily science policy matters and therefore were not OSTP priorities. He believed climate change policy was largely driven by economic considerations that were not an area of analytical strength in OSTP. Similarly, he argued that the debate over embryonic stem cell research involved ethical matters beyond the purview of his office.
But many in the scientific community believed Marburger was not actively pursuing these issues and not using his position to ensure that an ideological White House was making decisions informed by objective science. He responded to critics by emphasizing his role as an advisor and not an advocate, and pointing to the need to work in a manner that maintained the trust and confidence of the president and his other senior advisors. Marburger focused on budget priorities and R&D funding, communications technologies, bioterrorism, and the many technical issues that OSTP is called on to address. Unlike his predecessors, he was not given the title of Special Assistant to the President, which fueled the perception that he was not fully engaged in White House policy-making processes.
A controversy that dogged Marburger’s tenure at OSTP moved into the public spotlight in 2004, when more than 60 prominent scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, signed a statement charging that the Bush administration was “suppressing, distorting, or manipulating the work done by scientists at federal agencies.” The statement, organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, called for restoring scientific integrity and cited examples of alleged manipulation of science to further political objectives and the appointment of individuals to science advisory panels based on views favoring administration policy objectives. Marburger argued that the claims lacked a basis in fact and that the statement was counterproductive. He steadfastly defended the Bush administration’s record related to science, pointing to sustained support of R&D, including substantial funding increases for basic research.
Marburger was a determined leader and administrator who focused on priorities, acted deliberately, and cultivated an image of evenhanded propriety. As Crease points out in his introduction to the book, Marburger “learned to keep his image under his own control,” quoting him as saying that in order to maintain credibility and authority, an administrator involved in controversy should be “as bland as possible.” Marburger was a complex, highly accomplished individual who behind the scenes played piano, meticulously maintained an MGB sports car, and early in his career spent his spare time over three years building a harpsichord. He was chair of physics at the University of Southern California at the age of 32, dean at 35, and president of Stony Brook University at 39.
Marburger learned from his early accomplishments and attempted to apply his skills and experiences as science advisor to the president. But he, like other science advisors, found the complex and chaotic nature of political processes to be perplexing, and science policy making at the highest levels to be challenging. He was, as Crease put it, “a lightning rod for attack,” in part because prominent scientists believed the Bush administration was misusing science. Yet Marburger believed his job was to put politics and opinions aside and provide the president independent scientific advice.
What actually goes on in the White House policy-making deliberations often remains a mystery because advisors generally adhere to the principle that conversations with and advice to the president are private matters. In addition, many of the issues involve classified information and considerations that do not allow for the degree of transparency required for objective evaluations of the roles and actions of individuals. Marburger’s book is not an exception to this general rule.
But autobiographies and memoirs such as Science Policy Up Close are useful in providing a perspective on history from the standpoint of those who participated in historical events. In essence they provide a public figure an opportunity to present his or her actions in the context of events as he or she perceived them—or would like others to perceive them. One may argue that a more balanced assessment can be provided by those who are in a position to critically evaluate events from multiple perspectives, and are not defending or advocating for the actions of an individual—or oneself—actively engaged in those events. Science Policy Up Close provides an important, albeit somewhat opaque, glimpse of the inner workings of OSTP under particularly challenging political circumstances. It presents a clearer accounting of the complexities of operating major scientific facilities; the challenges of securing and maintaining support for large science and technology enterprises; and the difficulty of not just crafting, but effectively implementing, policy positions.
For those interested in national science policy, particularly those who might choose to participate in and guide the policy-making process as public servants, Science Policy Up Close is a valuable resource. Whether or not a reader agrees with the opinions and actions described in memoir or biography, there is much to learn from the way an individual assesses and responds to the issues with which he or she is confronted.
In an essay excerpted in the book’s final chapter, Marburger states that “science must continually justify itself, explain itself, and proselytize through its charismatic practitioners to gain influence on social events.” Readers of Science Policy Up Close and observers of actions and events during the presidency of George W. Bush will debate the degree to which Marburger accomplished this goal. Regardless of one’s perspective, the book provides a thoughtful accounting of the challenges associated with science policy making at the highest level, and of an accomplished individual’s persistence and dedication to science and public service under difficult circumstances.
Mark Schaefer is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He was an assistant director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton administration.