01 Dec 2000 Advice to the President-Elect: Improve the Status of the White House Science Advisor
George W. Bush – like Ronald Reagan before him – recognizes the importance of expert advice.
The stage, then, is set for a badly-needed White House staff reform: Elevation of the White House science advisor to a more prominent, independent advisory position equal to the national security advisor in status but not unlike a newspaper ombudsman in function.
Currently, the President receives science advice from the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) and from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), as well as from experts in cabinet departments. The NSTC, established by the Clinton Administration through executive order in 1993, develops strategy for federal spending on science and technology research and coordinates science and technology activities of government departments. The OSTP, established by legislation in 1976, advises the President on science and technology policy, articulates the President’s science policies, and coordinates federal science and technology policies with those of academia and other levels of government.
But neither office fills an important void: providing influential, independent scientific advice to the President, cabinet and country.
Our science advisor position is not sufficiently prominent: Even among Americans who could instantly name the Surgeon General and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), few could name the President’s key science advisor. Ask people who follow foreign policy, however, to name the national security advisor, or someone on Wall Street to name the economic advisor, and they’ll know.
Our science advisor is not sufficiently independent: No President can expect to receive truly independent science advice from staff who also are charged with promoting his views. A staffer can either tell Capitol Hill that it is vitally important that Congress fund a program based on such-and-such a theory or he can be the one in charge of telling the President that new discoveries have made that theory invalid, but he can’t reasonably be expected to do both simultaneously and well.
Federal officials need to receive science and technology advice from independent experts who don’t have a personal stake in decision-making.
Science and technology are big business. Government research and development dollars influence private business to the tune of billions of dollars. Huge agency expenditures are made based on theories that may later be found to be invalid. International treaties are sometimes made based on scientific theories for which there is no strong consensus. Whole industries are regulated based on the result of scientific studies, affecting not only the livelihood but sometimes the very lives of millions.
The last thing a government official implementing a program based on a scientific theory wants to learn is that new research might have invalidated the theory. Nor does he want to discover that a theory backed by well-heeled interest groups aligned with his boss’s political party just might be wrong. So the best science advisor is uninvolved with the implementation of government programs, unlikely to ever run for office and shouldn’t care if business or environmental organizations put out press releases against him.
A good science advisor should be so thoroughly perceived as an independent voice that he can address even a controversial issue with minimal political impact on the President. This is something the head of the EPA or the Food and Drug Administration could never do.
The closest equivalent position in the private sector is the job of newspaper ombudsman. Like an ombudsman, a science advisor needs the independence to critique the conclusions of various government agencies.
With each month that passes, we see more instances in which an independent science advisor could be useful to the White House.
Just recently, for instance, reports were made that certain applications of biotechnology could hurt the Monarch butterfly. Yet, as biotechnology may hold the key to saving millions of lives by improving the nutritional yields of staple crops in the third world, evaluating the accuracy of this theory (risks to butterflies turned out to be overstated1) was of critical importance.
Global warming is similar case. Clinton Administration officials sided with the theory that mankind creates greenhouse gases that dangerously heat the planet. As such, the Administration hired environmental policy staff holding this view. But recent scientific developments have cast doubt on this theory, and even the godfather of the theory himself no longer asserts that greenhouse gases cause global warming.
We disregard human nature, however, if we expect people who were selected for their jobs in part because they agreed with a theory to promptly tell the President about evidence they were wrong. An independent advisor would do so.
Governmental decisions affecting millions of lives are based on science. Scientific conclusions must not be based on fads of the day but on sound science. A prominent, independent, objective White House science advisor could help make that possible.
Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
1 Steven Milloy, “Get the Butterfly Net for Inattentive Media,” Washington Times, December 8, 2000.