This summer, I sat in with some big shots to discuss the future of science policy in an Obama Presidency, and of space policy in particular. One of the ideas I pushed, and which received general support, was the importance of a cabinet-level science advisor to the President, one who would be appointed and confirmed quickly, and given maximal access to the President and his decision-making process. Many scientists and science societies agree.
Now that Obama is planning his transition, the question moves to a more practical realm: who should he appoint?
First, I think the science advisor should be a biologist. The 21st century is going to be a century of biology, in the way the 20th was the century of physics. We need a biologist advising the president.
Second, the advisor can’t be focused only on the science. He or she has to have experience dealing with public controversies and conflicts. And he or she must understand politics as well as the workings of a lab. Science is bigger than what scientists do; it affects everyone’s lives, it affects global commerce and global geopolitics. The science advisor has to be able to see the whole field, and put it in terms that a non-scientist can grasp readily.
The first name I’ll toss out is unlikely for many reasons. I haven’t bounced this off her, or anyone else at NCSE, but I think our executive director, Eugenie Scott, would be great at the job. Everyone (even creationists) respects her, and scientists love her dearly. She understands science, and she understands people. She’s worked the line between science and politics for decades, and has done so with grace and ease. She knows the scientific community, she knows the political community, and she knows the policy community. She understands how science connects to people’s daily lives, and we could all feel confident that things would work out if Barack Obama were getting advice from her.
Given that she’s unlikely to leave NCSE or to move to DC, we’ll consider other options, though.
Francesca Grifo has run the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Scientific Integrity Program for some time now, and is well-respected by all. She’s worked at the interface of science, policy, and politics for a long time, and would be a good person to bend the President’s ear, and to clean up the abuses of science we’ve seen in the last 8 years. Her background in climate change and environmental science would be especially handy in the White House, as would the respect she’d command with the community of federal scientists, maligned and abused so horribly over the last 8 years.
From a different angle, you’ve got E. O. Wilson, an elder statesman with an established reputation and skills as a writer and a science communicator. He’d be an interesting choice, but there are those who found his work on sociobiology to be politically incorrect. Whether that would disqualify him isn’t clear to me, but I think we want to aim for a science advisor who is a bit closer to the mainstream of current scientific research, and Wilson has spent the last couple decades pursuing an important but very different program, verging on a sort of metaphysic. I think we want a science advisor who is more grounded.
Francis Collins is also an elder statesman of science, and one skilled in using the federal bureaucracy to the advantage of big scientific endeavors. Whether that’s the right background for this sort of advisory role is debatable, though. Federal science shouldn’t be so focused on giant projects (like Collins’s Human Genome Project), nor am I entirely happy with the way that molecular biology and genomics seem to be squeezing out other parts of the biological sciences. I’d rather a more integrative researcher and thinker.
Moving from that speculative realm, Obama’s campaign science advisors probably constitute the transition team’s short list: “Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate and former head of the National Institutes of Health; Gilbert Ommen, a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Peter Agre, a Nobel laureate and ardent critic of the Bush administration; NASA researcher Donald Lamb; and Stanford University plant biologist Sharon Long.”
Ommen is experienced in the ways of DC, and his work at the AAAS would give him a good grounding in science policy as it’s been done in the past, but would also leave him somewhat hidebound. Varmus is well-respected, and his time at the NIH would also give him good experience wrangling deals in DC. I worry about diverting attention from the breadth of biology to an increasingly narrow focus on medical research, though, and am skeptical about having a doctor (such as Ommen or Varmus) in a science advisory role. Then again, Varmus is a key figure in the open access scientific publishing world (and an advocate of bicycling and other alternatives to cars). Both of those show an interest in the broader ways that science influences society, which is an essential part of what the science advisor has to be able to explain to the President. (Bora endorsed Varmus for science advisor back in January.)
Sharon Long is a plant biologist, focusing on the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in leguminous plants. She just finished a 5 year term as dean of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, and in stepping down after a successful time in administration, cited her desire to get back into research. “I have an enduring love for science, and deep loyalty and gratitude to my lab colleagues, who have worked productively through my term as dean,” she said. “We have made progress in our research and some exciting surprises have emerged. However, our field is evolving rapidly, and, for an experimental scientist, active participation with lab research is a central requirement of scholarly life.” Given all that, it’s likely that she doesn’t want to drop her research to move to DC. Nonetheless, I think she’d be another great choice.
So, no answers here, but hopefully a start of discussion.