Science And The Presidency: 1993

Each four-year presidential election cycle frames an era of United States politics, including science in high politics. The greenhouse effect, the Valdez oil spill, and biodiversity; AIDS, tuberculosis, and other emerging diseases; fetal tissue research, genome mapping, DNA patents, and DNA fingerprinting; chemical weapons and unemployed Soviet bomb scientists; the space station and the supercollider: The past term has been a busy one for science in the White House. The next term will be b

Joshua Lederberg
Oct 25, 1992
Each four-year presidential election cycle frames an era of United States politics, including science in high politics.

The greenhouse effect, the Valdez oil spill, and biodiversity; AIDS, tuberculosis, and other emerging diseases; fetal tissue research, genome mapping, DNA patents, and DNA fingerprinting; chemical weapons and unemployed Soviet bomb scientists; the space station and the supercollider: The past term has been a busy one for science in the White House.

The next term will be busy, too. Outstanding challenges include stopping the proliferation of high-tech weapons, rationalizing medical care systems, building a civilian technology agency, and effecting widespread improvements in secondary school education in math and science. Scientists will be particularly concerned about an informed sensitivity to the consequences of budget restrictions on investigator-initiated ("small") science.

Can the accomplishments and lessons of the past presidential term help set goals for the next?

The incumbent administration has given high priority to improving the processes of governmental decision-making about science, with notable and, it is hoped, durable accomplishments, among them:

* An articulate, accessible, vigorous presidential science adviser. Embedded in the complex political environment of the Oval Office, Allan Bromley has displayed command of many issues and worked constructively with diverse constituencies in academia and industry. He has energetically sought a balance in dealing with other White House units, the executive branch agencies, and the Congress; and he has immersed himself in budget battles when necessary. He has pioneered means for international cooperation in science by networking with science advisers to other governments and forming the Forum on Megascience in the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development.

* A strengthened White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). With support from both the Congress and the president, OSTP has grown from a handful to a score of professionals, including extraordinarily well-qualified and respected associate directors.

* An active, high-level coordination of government programs of research. The Federal Coordinating Committee on Science, Engineering, and Technology (FCCSET) has successfully been reconstituted as the way the top R&D officials in all major government agencies work together. FCCSET has been notably effective in building better and more coherent government programs in global environmental change, supercomputing, data networking, and materials science.

Regardless of who wins the election, what should lead the science agenda during the presidential term that begins in 1993?

The main theme, in our opinion, is to take full advantage of the renovated capacity of the White House to obtain science advice, to analyze problems, and to apply scientific insights in government programs. For example:

* To direct the enhanced governmental decision-making apparatus for science to be as helpful in "science for policy" as in "policy for science." During the past four years, the moderating influence of the science adviser on the threats to the $70 billion federal budget for research and development--the heart of federal policy for science--has been evident. The government's science and technology leadership should now exercise a constructive influence at the highest level on federal policies for environment, health, education, national security, and economic performance.

* To assemble a full, top-flight government science and technology team. Outstanding individuals must be recruited in a more timely way to the key posts calling for skills in science, engineering, and medicine. Sources such as John Trattner's The Prune Book: The 60 Toughest Scientific and Technical Jobs in the Federal Government (Lanham, Md., Madison Books, 1992) point out that dozens of the men and women whom the president appoints and the Senate confirms hold federal science and engineering leadership posts. But too often there has been "room at the top"- -posts unfilled owing to lagging efforts to attract candidates, frustration and confusion over conflict-of-interest rules, and needlessly lengthy bureaucratic procedures. The science adviser, White House personnel office, Cabinet heads, and key members of Congress must work together to make sure the U.S. government is always putting a full, top-flight science and technology team on the field. The No. 1 priority for the president in 1993 is either the early reaffirmation of Bromley or the appointment and confirmation of his successor.

* To use the President's Council of Advisers in Science and Technology (PCAST) more effectively. This group, re-established three years ago, is a remarkable concentration of knowledge and experience from many fields and a unique resource for the president. A recently initiated PCAST study on American research universities and their relationship with the federal government, for example, is desperately needed if this critical and frayed partnership is to be repaired. Increasingly, PCAST should be challenged to advise on similarly difficult and important questions facing the next administration, such as how to convert technical military assets in the U.S. economy to new purposes and how science and technology can be better applied to achieve both economic development and improved environmental quality.

Science and technology now pervade government. And the president had best be prepared.

Joshua Lederberg is co-chairman and Jesse Ausubel is director of studies of the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government. In 1993, the commission will complete a five-year examination of organization and decision-making in science and technology in all branches of American government.