The Science Advisor

Chris Mooney's recently-published article in Seed magazine has stirred a bit of discussion about the role of the Presidential Science Advisor, and just who would be a good choice for that position. Of the two questions, the first is probably the more important, but the second is more fun to argue about - at least for the few people who are more or less fluent in the who's who of the scientific community. Several people (including Chris) have already suggested names. I've got a few to suggest, too.

Of course, it really is necessary to talk about the job description first. The role of the Science Advisor has (rather unsurprisingly) been diminished in the Bush Administration. In prior administrations, the position carried the rank of "Assistant to the President". In the current administration, one wonders whether the Science Advisor has more or less access to the president than the pizza delivery guy (and, for that matter, which of the two has more influence on science policy). If that remains the case under the new administration, I'm going to find it very hard to care about who gets the job.

Like Mooney, I think that it's absolutely critical that the post, at a minimum, is restored to the prestige and access that it had in prior administrations. Science plays a role in almost every aspect of public life, including some that you might not normally think of - like transportation policy, for example. The voice of the Science Advisor probably shouldn't be the most decisive on many of these issues, but it should certainly be there.

The Science Advisor needs to be more than just an advisor to the President, though. Chris Mooney is right when he argues that we need a "scientist-in-chief," who can argue for scientific priorities behind the scenes at the White House, in front of Congressional Committees, and directly to the American public. The Science Advisor will need to be able to do this on any number of very different issues, so scientific breadth is going to be as important as a feel for policy and for public communications.

Several names have been suggested. Mooney raised the possibility of Francis Collins (of Human Genome fame), brought up several climate scientists including former AAAS president John Holdren, and popularizers of science Steven Pinker and E.O. Wilson. Scott Hatfield raises another few possible candidates, including former NASA administrator Daniel Golden. Matt Nisbet suggests that Collins might be the best choice, both because he's got experience working within government and because he's an Evangelical Christian, and thinks that both Wilson and Neil deGrasse Tyson would be poor choices because "they have a paper trail of strong opinions on issues that might make appointment politically tough.". (I can understand some of that reasoning with regard to sociobiologist Wilson, but like RPM I'm at a loss for what those "opinions" and "issues" might be in the case of Tyson, who has to be one of the most skilled and articulate popularizers of science around today.)

Out of the suggestions I've seen so far, I'd have to say that Tyson and Golden are probably the two best. Lawrence Krauss (of Case Western Reserve University) is also worth considering. He lacks government experience, but has done a great deal of science advocacy work in the NGO sector. Donald Kennedy could be good, too. He's got experience at the FDA, running a university, and after eight years at the helm of the journal Science, he certainly has breadth. Shirley Ann Jackson would be an extremely interesting choice. She doesn't have quite the name recognition of the others, and hasn't had the easiest time at RPI, but she's got governmental experience, academic experience, has done some work in the private sector, and is a past president of AAAS.

Of course, all of this discussion is extremely premature right now. There's an election to win first, for starters. But it's interesting to think about.

5 responses so far

  • natural cynic says:

    The big negative for Tyson [and Wilson] is atheism.

  • Dan says:

    Natural Cynic,
    Why should atheism be a drawback for a science adviser post?
    What a stupid criticism. Why should pandering to idiots be of interest?

  • SLC says:

    Re Neil Tyson
    Based on an interview Dr. Tyson gave to Point of Inquiry (link attached), I think it is a bit of an overstatement to label him an atheist. His comments there indicate an agnostic, more then an atheist.
    Re Lawrence Krauss
    I would have to disagree with Mr. Dunford about Prof. Krauss. His record in Ohio, particularly in the 2006 election cycle where he campaigned around the state for pro-science aspirants for the school board indicates political involvement. Although he himself is an atheist, he maintains good relations with theistic evolutionists, unlike say Richard Dawkins. For instance, recognizing the value of support of theistic scientists, he persuaded Ken Miller to come to Ohio (he gave a number of speeches around the state)to assist in this effort.
    Re Matthew Nisbit
    Prof. Nisbit is not a scientist so who cares what his opinion of a science adviser is?

  • ERV says:

    Isnt the whole point of a science adviser to advise the president on science? The majority of scientists are nontheistic, much less evangelical christian (hell, Ive never even met an Evangelical PI). Collins as a science adviser would be like sending a deaf albino dwarf to an alien space ship to represent average humans.
    He does not represent science and scientists in the US. His views on certain kinds of research are not mainstream in the scientific community. It needs to be someone that represents the needs and interests of the scientific community, as well as someone who understands the needs and concerns of the general public.

  • The only argument I can see for why Collins' evangelical belief system should even matter is this ridiculous notion that we need a "science ambassador to religious America" (Nisbet's characteristically stupid phrasing). We need no such thing, we need someone who can adequately convey the best available scientific advise to the president. Echoing what ERV said above, a science advisor isn't there to advise on religion.