"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
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
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
Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics