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FYI Number 126: October 11, 2001

Positive Hearing for OSTP Director Nominee Marburger

"More than any other nation, we have used science and technology wisely to create peace, advance democracy, and provide for the well being of our citizens." - John Marburger

President Bush's nominee for Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Marburger, gave a strong and articulate performance at his October 9 nomination hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. The hearing also addressed the nomination of Phillip Bond to be the Department of Commerce Undersecretary for Technology. Committee members were enthusiastic about both nominees and looked forward to their prompt and smooth confirmation. Science, Transportation, and Space Subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), who chaired this hearing, expressed "very high expectations for you two."

Much of the early part of the hearing addressed the use of science and technology to protect against and repair damage caused by terrorism, but Wyden later shifted the focus to a philosophical discussion of science and how it can inform policy. Marburger showed himself a thoughtful proponent of science, the scientific method, and the flexibility, creativity, and diversity of the nation's science enterprise.

Marburger, who has served as Director of Brookhaven National Laboratory since 1994, was given introductions by House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Rep. Felix Grucci (R-NY), who represents the Brookhaven district. Boehlert praised Marburger as "an excellent manager" and "a natural leader." These are abilities that will be needed, Boehlert added, "to work with the turf-conscious R&D agencies and the Office of Management and Budget." Grucci testified that Marburger had "restored the [local] community's trust" in Brookhaven Laboratory, and "reaffirmed their faith" in the nation's science program. Marburger, he said, "will be a tremendous asset to President Bush and our nation."

Prior to his position at Brookhaven, Marburger was President of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "I believe my professional career over the last three decades - as a Professor of physics and electrical engineering, as a university Dean and President, and as the Director of the Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory - has provided me with the knowledge and experience to meet the needs and expectations of this office," Marburger stated. He promised, if confirmed, to "seek the counsel and wisdom of the best minds in the science and engineering community," and to "ensure that our science and technology portfolio is responsive to Presidential and Congressional intent, that our cross-cutting programs are well- coordinated, and that our research and development funds are efficiently used."

The first questions from Wyden and Ranking Member George Allen (R-VA) focused on combating terrorism. Wyden cited a GAO report that found a lack of coordination in counterterrorism efforts across agencies, and asked how to better mobilize the creativity and energy of private-sector technology companies in both preventing and responding to terrorism. Marburger responded that the Office of Science and Technology Policy was created specifically to organize cross-cutting committees and provide cross-agency coordination. He expected the President's Council on Science and Technology (PCAST) - which he would co-chair and which includes industry and academic S&T leaders - to play an important role in addressing such issues. He pledged to work with Tom Ridge and the new Office of Homeland Security to learn lessons from the September 11 attacks and identify opportunities to do a better job of responding in the future.

Wyden then asked how, "at a time when science is more important than ever before," Congress can ensure that it has the best possible science to inform its policy decisions. He noted that Congress must generally rely on outside sources for scientific information, and questioned whether it is possible to define a core set of principles for what constitutes "real science, as opposed to junk science." Wyden himself offered several suggestions: that science used for policy be consistent with the majority of findings published in peer-reviewed literature; that it satisfy definitions of good scientific practice; that it be supported by empirical data; and that policy be arrived at by consensus.

"I think the peer-review process is flexible enough to be a pretty good guide," Marburger responded, but he pointed out that sometimes good ideas "come from left field." Policies need to have sufficient flexibility for "an occasional wild card" or off- the-wall idea, he said, and ideas should not be discarded just because "most people don't agree with them." Taking this into account, he agreed that "peer-review is the right approach."

Regarding good practice, he asked, "as determined by whom?" He noted that "there are some awfully sloppy scientists...who are very brilliant," and cautioned that it was important to recognize that "science progresses in a very opportunistic way." An idea can "come out of the blue," he said, but if it stimulates new thought and new avenues of approach, it should be looked at, and tested against nature. He acknowledged that different fields have a diversity of methods, and pointed out that some areas of science are more amenable to modeling and simulation than others. But, he added, "nature has to be the final arbiter."

"If you try to get a broad range of opinion" on which to base policy, Marburger remarked, "sometimes you get just that; a broad range of opinion." He said someone was needed to integrate those opinions with knowledge and insight in order to craft effective policy. In general, Marburger thought the nation's regulatory mechanisms for science "are quite strong."

Wyden was clearly pleased with the responses he received. He then questioned whether Marburger would have sufficient access to the President. Marburger replied that he had been assured appropriate access to Bush. He commented that he had felt "good vibes" in conversations with White House officials, and had felt comfortable expressing his opinions freely. "I expect that when I have something important to say," he stated, "the President will hear it," either directly or through appropriate channels.

Wyden also raised questions about the Administration's policies on stem cell research and global climate change. Marburger said the President's decision on stem cells opens the door to research in this area. He believed the President's climate change policy of calling for more S&T "to steer us toward a knowledge-based policy" was "basically correct." He added that he had been reassured by the fact that Bush, "in the absence of a science advisor," had sought advice from the National Academy of Sciences and, based on that advice, had "changed his tune." He said OSTP was now working to craft long-range climate change policies for the country.

In conclusion, Wyden urged Marburger to seek bipartisan cooperation from Congress on science issues, and expressed his "high expectations" for the nominees. Both nominations are expected to be favorably reported to the full Senate. Selected portions of Marburger's written statement will be provided in FYI #127.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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