Graham on SDI, Competitiveness

William R. Graham has directed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy since Oct. 1, when the US. Senate approved his nomination to succeed George A. Keyworth II. Graham, whose background is largely in classified military systems research, had been serving as acting administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration when President Reagan named him science adviser. A strong supporter of Reagan's 1980 presidential bid, Graham advised him on defense policy issues bot

By | June 1, 1987

William R. Graham has directed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy since Oct. 1, when the US. Senate approved his nomination to succeed George A. Keyworth II. Graham, whose background is largely in classified military systems research, had been serving as acting administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration when President Reagan named him science adviser.

A strong supporter of Reagan's 1980 presidential bid, Graham advised him on defense policy issues both before and after the election; he was a member of the transition team and served for three years as chairman of the president's General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament. Graham is a former board member of the Committee on the Present Danger and has served on a number of advisory panels dealing with strategic military policy and nuclear warfare.

After obtaining a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University, Graham spent three years as an officer at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., directing research on strategic systems survivability. He then joined the Rand Corporation, a think tank on defense matters in Santa Monica, Calif. In 1971, he and some physicist colleagues formed their own consulting group, R&D Associates, of Marina del Ray, Calif. Much of the firm's work is done for the Pentagon and the Department of Energy.

Reagan named Graham to be deputy administrator of NASA in November 1985— six weeks before the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

Graham was interviewed May 6 in his office in the Old Executive Office Building by Peter Gwynne, director of editorial operations for The Scientist. This is an edited version of their talk.

Q: How do you see your role as science adviser? To whom do you answer?
GRAHAM: There is no question that I work for the president. He appointed me to this job, he asked me to take it and it was established to be part of the executive office of the president and to report to him on a range of scientific and technical issues. At the same time, to be useful in that job it's important that OSTP act as a focal point for the interests and capabilities, the thoughts, the ideas, the aspirations of the scientific and technological communities in this country. I spend a substantial part of my time talking with and meeting with representatives from these communities. And on occasion when they meet with the president, I help in the process of those meetings and take part in their conduct.

Q: What type of direct contact do you have with the president?
GRAHAM: He's my number one priority and when he asks for my counsel or when I think my counsel would help him, then I'm there. I do that through a number of mechanisms. We have for example various Cabinet-level policymaking bodies that I sit with on science and technology issues. We have of course the budget process here. But there are times when I just talk to the president about scientific issues.

Q: Can you give one or two examples of specfic issues on which the president has consulted you, or on which you have alerted the president to forthcoming problems or difficulties?
GRAHAM: I've been working with him on the issue of the new high-temperature superconducting materials lately. The president is certainly interested in these. The superconducting supercollider was another issue that I worked on which clearly required a presidential decision to proceed, in which he took a very active interest. And the evolution of the space station program was an issue which I think we all anticipated would have the need for a careful review after the Challenger accident. OSTP was coordinating that activity within the White House and it had very active participation of 0MB and the National Security Council staff.

Q: How do you think the scientific community is feeling about the administration's science policies?
GRAHAM: I think on balance the scientific community realizes, albeit with some surprise, that the president is a strong supporter of basic research. He has been increasing support for science and technology, virtually the only account substantially increased in the last year or two.

Q: Is the scientific community using OSTP as a kind of conduit for getting its views to the president?
GRAHAM: That's certainly part of this job. Certainly it's important to have a diversity of views available to draw on when major issues come forward. The White House Science Council, for example, is an agency that reports to me and fulfills in part the function of providing a strong source of information and wisdom in scientific technological issues. I meet with them frequently, and I greatly respect their judgment. But I also interact with professional societies and with individual members of the professional community. I try to speak to various elements of the scientific community as frequently as possible. I believe in a diversity of input.

Scientists and SDI

Q: What sort of input are you getting about SDI, particularly in light of the recent American Physical Society report?
GRAHAM: I was quite disappointed in the APS report on directed energy devices because I think it didn't represent the rate of change of technology in the areas that they addressed. They conducted and released that report over about a two-year period. A number of the technologies that they were addressing were actually progressing at a rate of an order of magnitude per year. Recognizing that fact was an important part of the story, and I don't see that coming through m the APS report. I also found a number of substantive errors and I think the APS could have given a broader circulation and review to the report before releasing it.

Q: A kind of peer review?
GRAHAM: A better, wider peer review. There was a group selected by the American Physical Society to review it, but it was, I would say, a relatively homogeneous group compared to the broad range of knowledge and interests available generally in the physics community. I checked with some people who I believe are very close to our directed energy weapons programs, and I haven't yet found any of them who were asked to provide a technical review of the report.

I was even more disappointed by the statement in which the American Physical Society Council addressed much larger issues of strategic defense capabilities and prospects without the benefit of even the analysis that the directed energy weapon group had done. That seemed to me to be very out of keeping with the strongly scientific intellectual tradition of the American Physical Society and physics generally. I was sorry to see them put out such a statement because I think in the long run it will tend to diminish the stature of the American Physical Society. That's unfortunate.

Q: Back in the late '60s and early '70s the issue of the anti-ballistic missile system caused a great rift between the scientific community and the administration. Do you see a danger that this will happen over the SDI issue?
GRAHAM: It's a certainly a concern to me that the dialogue on issues as important to our national security as the defensive character of our strategic posture should become the subject of so much scientific rhetoric when in fact it is strategy and policy being discussed, not science itself. I find the academic scientific community claiming a great deal of expertise in areas that they are not as familiar with as is the industrial sector of the scientific community. I think we need to have a more reasoned discourse on the subject and draw more on the industrial sector as well as the academic sector. I think that will help moderate some of the positions being taken, as we get more information injected into the process.

Q: Do you mean a formal series of debates?
GRAHAM: No, I think it's the general intellectual milieu that we function in. It's very difficult to get information published when it comes to the view that SDI has reasonable prospects to contribute to our strategic deterrence and our national security. That's unfortunate. I'd like to see a more balanced debate in both the professional journals and in the public sector.

Space Policy

Q: Given your move to this office from NASA, you've obviously retained a great interest in the space agency's continuing programs. What problems do you see in space policy?
GRAHAM: The NASA program will certainly be a challenging one for many years to come. One of the greatest challenges will be reducing the cost of access to space in the future so that within reasonable budgets we can conduct as broad a range of scientific exploration and, we hope, industrial activities as possible.

I'm concerned that the hiatus in the space program not deprive us of the continuity of the young researchers who would otherwise work in space sciences. But we have to provide them with the prospect of access to space if in fact they're going to work in the space-based technologies.

I think the Hubble telescope will be a boon to astronomy. I think eventually the space station will be a boon to that community. But that's a decade away, and we've got to look to the nearer term as well to make sure we provide enough continuity for our space science community—and for that matter, our embryonic space industries community—to maintain some momentum through this difficult period.

International Cooperation

Q: What other high-priority issues do you see in science policy today?
GRAHAM: I think without question continuing the strength of our basic research capabilities in this country, which are very strong, and making full use of those capabilities for our economy, our national security and the benefit of our population and our friends and allies around the world. We have a tremendous resource here. I think almost every country appreciates the enormous talent, investment and capability of our basic research infrastructure more than the U.S. does. We've come to take it for granted over the last four decades. It's almost as natural to us as the air we breathe.

Countries which face the prospect of having to establish an infrastructure and pay for it realize what an enormous effort that is. They look to us to help them with that. And for some countries which are still in the early stages of development, we certainly ourselves are interested in helping them, and helping them to use it to evolve into stable, democratic forms of government with rich prospects for the future.

Other countries which have now had the benefit of that for many years and have become very highly developed have themselves an obligation to contribute to this commonwealth of scientific knowledge and should certainly look to making their own contributions to basic research. We would be more than pleased to work in cooperation with them. But the very advanced countries should realize that now as major citizens of the world they have responsibilities themselves to contribute to the world's open fund of basic research and to work in a reciprocal and mutually beneficial way with all the countries in proportion to the benefit that they derive from that scientific knowledge.

Q: Do you have any specific proposals in mind for international cooperation in basic research?
GRAHAM: Oh, yes. We think that, for example, all of our basic research agreements with foreign countries should be based on the principle of mutual and reciprocal benefit, should be two-way streets, and should be very careful in their protection of the intellectual properties that are developed under the agreement. We want to have an open scientific environment, and open means not only are other countries free to come work with the U.S. and learn what we're doing, but we should be free to have our researchers go to other countries, work there in their basic research infrastructure, cooperate with what they're doing and derive the benefit of their contributions as well as our own.

Improving US Competitiveness

Q: The inverse of cooperation is competitiveness. What are you doing at OSTP to improve U.S. competitiveness?
GRAHAM: I think there are several pieces to that. Some of the most important ones include making sure that there are channels open for U.S. industry to access the results of our basic research institutions—our universities, our government laboratories—and that is a major reason that my predecessor George Keyworth and National Science Foundation Director Erich Bloch established the first engineering research centers. We intend for other agencies to participate in this process in the near future, and use that as the mechanism for bringing industry into the research environment and bringing the research environment into closer contact with the basic scientific needs of our industries.

Another thing we need to do is to make sure that industry realizes what a challenge they are being given in the world at large by other countries, and how aggressive other countries are in pursuing new technologies. In an environment where the first to apply new technologies to industrial capabilities and products may well end up with an unassailable lead in a given field, it's important for U.S. industry to be in the forefront, using the same genius that our research institutions use to make the discoveries to begin with, and apply those to our economic benefit. Industry has got to get moving and to get on top of these high-tech advances much more quickly than they have in the recent past.

Q: How do you persuade them to do that?
GRAHAM: I think they're going to have to persuade themselves. One of the things that the president can do, and I can do, is keep motivating industry in this direction, by making sure they understand that their fate is in their hands. Government will certainly continue to support strong basic research capability in this country. But in the final analysis, our industries themselves are going to have to take advantage of that and use it to remain competitive.

Q: You feel that industry has a foundation of basic science in this country at the moment that is adequate?
GRAHAM: I think we have a very strong foundation in basic science, a stronger foundation than industry is taking full advantage of at the moment. We are planning to make a major increase in our overall basic research programs in the next several years, and the president has already done that in the last six years. The NSF budget, for example, is up over 50 percent in real dollars from where it was at the start of this decade. Other scientific basic research programs have received major increases in their budgets during the president's tenure. And that will continue. The important thing is that industry realize that that's a major investment of a great economic as well as intellectual benefit, and that they should take full advantage of it. If U.S. industry doesn't, there's no question that foreign industry will.

The AIDS Crisis

Q: What do you see as OSTP's role in dealing with the AIDS crisis?
GRAHAM: I think it's important that OSTP see that the president stays thoroughly informed on the issues. In fact, we had meetings earlier this week on just that subject. The president decided at that time to establish a presidential commission on it. It's important that that be done, because more than anything it's important that the right questions be asked. One of the major roles OSTP continues to play along with other government agencies is to make sure that we're addressing the breadth of the issues that AIDS leads to and that the agencies of the government and the private sector are able to make their strongest and most timely contribution to solving the AIDS problem. I also want to make sure that we establish a careful history of this epidemic so that should anything else even approaching this arise in the future we'll have the full benefit of what we learned in dealing with AIDS to start from the next time.

Operations of OSTP

Q: The Iran situation is in the news and on TV every evening. How does this affect your ability to operate at OSTP?
GRAHAM: There's the constant level of activity; it's very great here in the White House and Iran of course is one element of that. But both OSTP and the White House generally are proceeding at full throttle. The president took up AIDS earlier this week, the scientific area within the space station a few weeks ago, the superconducting supercollider before that, the science budgets for '88 before that and so on. We'll be working on a conference for this summer to explore the possible industrial and commercial applications of the new high-temperature superconducting materials. There's a very large interest on the part of the president in what we're doing.

Q: A recent General Accounting Office report [see The Scientist, May 4, p. 1] calls for a boosting of OSTP in terms of number of staff and influence. What's your reaction to that?
GRAHAM: I haven't read the report yet. But my general feeling is that OSTP receives excellent cooperation from all of the agencies in the government that work in science and technology. I don't see any great problems in either the charter or the size of the office.

Q: Looking toward a few years' time when you're no longer presidential science adviser—what do you see yourself doing after that?
GRAHAM: I haven't thought about that very much because I've been too busy here.


Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
The Scientist
The Scientist
Life Technologies