December 24, 2001
Volume 79, Number 52
CENEAR 79 52 pp. 23-27
ISSN 0009-2347
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New Office of Science & Technology Policy Director John Marburger talks about the war on terrorism as well as the U.S. science and technology agenda


The world has changed since President George W. Bush named John H. Marburger III to be director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) and his chief science adviser (C&EN, July 2, page 4). Now, as U.S. forces in Afghanistan play an endgame with alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and his followers, Bush looks to Marburger, who was confirmed by the Senate in late October, as one of his staff of advisers for the wider war on terrorism as well as for security at home.

Indeed, Marburger, 60, tells C&EN Associate Editor William Schulz in the following interview that 50% of his time is spent on issues dealing with the war on terrorism and homeland security. Given the Sept. 11 airline hijackings, the anthrax poisonings delivered through the U.S. mail that followed, and regular news of other potential threats, no less time would seem sufficient for events that have also changed the focus and direction of the Administration.

But, as Marburger himself elaborates, this is a demanding time for all of the U.S. science and technology enterprise. The increasing pace of interdisciplinary research, new research opportunities brought about by rapid advances in information technology, public understanding of science, and a host of ethical and moral issues tumbling forth from advances in the life sciences, to name just a few issues, mean that Marburger and his OSTP staff would already have had a full agenda.

Plain-spoken and direct, Marburger projects an air of confidence that he can tackle all of these issues and more. In fact, he appears to relish the opportunity. A physicist by training, he has been a professor and principal investigator; president of the State University of New York, Stony Brook (1980–97); and director of Brookhaven National Laboratory. His admirers include people who have opposed him, such as one Long Island environmental activist who credits Marburger with "a superb job of addressing community concerns and not just papering them over."

C&EN: People who have worked with you comment very favorably on your skills and talents. What is it that you think you have to offer in this position, and what will be some of your priorities?

MARBURGER: I have been in positions that have exposed me to the issues of doing science and technology in the U.S. over the last quarter century. I have been a university president, a principal investigator, and a lab director for a national laboratory, and I've dealt with public issues. So all of those things seem to be relevant to this position, and I am looking forward to continuing doing many of the same things that I have done in the past--talking to people about science and trying to bring the best of science to bear on policy issues. There are a lot of issues now, and clearly the war on terrorism--including counterterrorism, bioterrorism, response technology, and so on--has been the highest priority for this Administration. But there are other areas that the President has singled out for attention, such as climate change, ethical issues in life sciences research, and important issues about priorities within the sciences; for example, what does a balanced science portfolio look like?

C&EN: Has it been a significant challenge to pull together expertise on those areas related to counterterrorism?

MARBURGER: No. In fact, the problem has been that there's almost too much expertise. There's a tremendous willingness on the part of U.S. science and technology organizations, whether it be universities or industry, the National Academies, and other organizations. They all want to help, and so it's a question of establishing points of contact and understanding what they all feel they can bring to bear and then providing an interface within government. But it's not so easy.

I have heard the phrase "Manhattan Project" in connection with what our response should be to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. That's not an appropriate analogy. We don't have a single technical challenge. The issues are more like systems issues than they are specific technology issues. There is a tremendous amount of work that has to be done on assessing vulnerability and threats, and in a systematic way. I am using the word "system" in an engineering sense--systems for collecting and disseminating the mail safely, systems for dealing with foreign immigration, systems for dealing with aviation safety, and so forth--that is, critical infrastructures. They're different from the sort of one-shot technical challenges like the Manhattan Project.

C&EN: The Administration has been criticized for being slow in filling many key government positions in science and technology, including your position. Has coming to the Administration late--and now with the war on terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, the ailing economy--put you at any disadvantage?

MARBURGER: No, I don't think so. If anything, the terrorist attacks and the war on terrorism have increased my interaction with key issues in the White House. Everyone understands that there are deep technical issues here and that there are a lot of capabilities in the agencies that need to be brought to bear. OSTP has the coordinating responsibility by congressional definition and by executive mandate. My job is to try to bring crosscutting agency expertise to bear on issues, and we have been doing that vigorously.

I haven't found the delay to be a particular disadvantage. It would have been nice to have been here from the beginning. But the Administration reached out very effectively to the National Academies in that period, and I give a lot of credit to [National Academy of Sciences President] Bruce Alberts and his colleagues for responding quickly in the absence of a complete [White House] science advisory apparatus. I continue to take advantage of that responsiveness from the National Academies. They have been very effective and can be even more so in the future.

C&EN: What about some of the other appointments that remain open, for example, the NIH director. Is the President soliciting your advice?

MARBURGER: Yes. I have been talking with White House personnel. I regret as much as anyone--and the President does, too--that these positions are not yet filled. Even after the nomination, it's sometimes hard to get a position filled because it's such a complicated and lengthy process of clearances and Senate confirmations. It's been a regrettably protracted process. 

C&EN: Some people in Washington see great significance in the fact that your office has been moved from the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB) to an office building several blocks from the White House. Can you explain what difference this makes?

MARBURGER: I can't see that it's made any difference at all. OSTP is one of several offices that were moved out of the west side of OEOB because it's the only part of the White House complex adjacent to an open street. There was a security determination immediately after Sept. 11 to move those offices. But I have an office in OEOB, and I go over there almost every day. There's no special significance to the fact that we moved out--it was for an obvious reason. Frankly, I like this space better for the type of work we do, which requires our staff working as teams on crosscutting issues.

C&EN: What have you and the President discussed in terms of his priorities for OSTP?

MARBURGER: We haven't specifically discussed priorities for OSTP, and if we had, I wouldn't tell you. But it's obvious. OSTP is there to provide advice to the President and to coordinate multiagency science activities such as climate change and nanotechnology. There's a long history of OSTP activity in this area. There are several mechanisms like PCAST [the President's Committee of Advisors on Science & Technology], cochaired by me and E. Floyd Kvamme [a partner in a high-technology venture-capital firm], and it has panels that are well defined. The new PCAST has been defined under a new executive order, and that will be announced soon. There's also the National Science & Technology Council (NSTC), which is designed to produce panels and working groups with multiagency membership. I continue to use that process, and it functions well.

As far as priorities for OSTP are concerned, I would say the biggest one for us is to provide technical support for the Office of Homeland Security. That's a new office, of course, and there is an arm in that office for research and development and technical input. OSTP is the technical arm of the Office of Homeland Security.

C&EN: Because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, did you have to come up to speed on any science and technology issues that perhaps you weren't quite as familiar with?

MARBURGER: I was president of a research university for a long time, and it encompassed all fields. Then I was the director of a national laboratory--one of about five multiprogram laboratories. We had climate research, we had health research, medical research, as well as materials science, nanotechnology, nuclear physics, particle physics, and so on. So I have had experience in managing programs in virtually every area of science. I have not felt that I was terribly behind technically. And because I have been an executive-level manager in these areas, I have a lot of contacts. I have found it very easy to establish relationships with all of the organizations that I needed to.

What's new for me is the specific dynamics of government--the day-to-day administration at the policy level. And yet I feel very comfortable with that. I recognize the issues. Being the president of a university in the state of New York exposes you to a lot of politics and operations of government.

C&EN: Some people have expressed concern about the President's level of interest in science. What topics in science interest him?

MARBURGER: This President is perhaps somewhat unusual in our history because of his business background and business training, and I find that refreshing. Businesspeople have an ability to focus on the things that are important to get the business done. I think we saw that very strongly as the President was wrestling with the stem cell research issue. He informed himself about it. He was interested in what science had to say. He listens. He's not a scientist, doesn't claim to be a scientist, and he doesn't particularly want to be a scientist, as far as I can tell. He understands that science is important and that there is a quality issue in science that has to be maintained. He wants the best science, and he wants the best performance from science. He wants to have access to good science when he's making decisions. So he has, I would say, a pretty good approach to it, and it's not at all negative. It's supportive in the best way.

But it's not a hobby, as far as I can tell. It's not something that [he] naturally goes after, but he doesn't have to. What he does have to do is precisely what he is doing, which is to seek good advice and do his best to follow it. His behavior on the climate-change issue is also revealing. After the Administration received a lot of criticism for how it presented its position on the Kyoto protocol--which was a deeply flawed protocol and one that most people agree would have very serious negative economic consequences for the U.S.--the President did reach out to the National Academies for a report. The Academies responded and confirmed that the science the Kyoto protocol was based on was valid, and while there are great uncertainties in climate predictions, there is no doubt that human activity has contributed to global warming.

The President, following that report, announced that the U.S. would take responsibility for its emissions and created two new research initiatives--one in technology and one in basic research. The statement of June 11, just before he went to Europe for the first time and laid out a proposal, was an action that was very responsive to the scientific advice he received. I have felt very well supported as I've given advice to Homeland Security and other agencies on behalf of the President. They have been responsive and they understand that the President takes science seriously.

So, I think the issue of access to the President and talking to him is rather naive. It's based on a naive conception of how science advice gets delivered in the Administration. It's really the people who are carrying out the processes of government that I need to interact with. As I said to someone else, if I have to have a conversation with the President, it means that something is seriously wrong. I would almost prefer not to be in a situation where that was essential.

C&EN: The economy has been a subject of growing concern since the start of the Administration. How might the state of the economy affect science funding?

MARBURGER: That's too easy a question to answer. The fact is that when the economy is bad, it's harder to fund things--including science. When the economy is good and revenues are up, it's easier. So, will today's economy have a negative effect on science? Well, yes, probably.

C&EN: So, what is the view of the Administration on the value of investments in science and technology to perhaps stimulate the economy?

"There are deep technical issues here, and there are a lot of capabilities in the agencies that need to be brought to bear."
MARBURGER: The Administration does not want to go backward in science. As we go through difficult periods--we're waging a war on terrorism--we would like to maintain our strengths and world leadership in basic science, no question about it, and there are certainly areas of science that are high payoff, including health-related research. There are enormous opportunities here that the President would like to take advantage of. He made a commitment during his campaign to increase funding in that area. He was serious about that, and he was justified, I think, in doing that.

But there are other priorities, too. The issue of balance in the federal [science] budget is something he's paying a lot of attention to--the fact that the life sciences people cannot do their research without instrumentation that comes from the physical sciences--for example, the synchrotron light sources that the Department of Energy operates and that the National Science Foundation also operates. We know that these huge expansions of opportunity in the sciences are created by investments in information technology, instrumentation, nanotechnology, and so on.

We will certainly do our best to keep these areas strong and to keep funding the basic research programs that enable us to take advantage of these opportunities. But I can't say [science agency] budgets will be doubled or tripled in any particular time. We're in a difficult budget era. We have to try to have better planning and better accountability for using the money wisely. That's already a theme of this Administration--performance management. And that can apply to science in some appropriate way. You will see a real effort at prioritization in science.

C&EN: Some people have viewed the President's decision on stem cell research as arbitrary and rigid, in accord with a moral viewpoint. Others say the President appreciates the complexity of the moral issues at hand and so he has created a situation in which policy can change as more facts from research come to light. How do you understand his decision?

MARBURGER: I think the President does appreciate the complexities of the situation, and I thought his decision on how stem cell research should move forward does reflect a thoughtful and measured point of view--and a rather sophisticated point of view. It should be clear to the science community that the ability to do science does not tell you whether it should be done. Science does not answer questions about "should." It answers questions like whether it's possible. Decisions that reflect moral judgments are necessarily somewhat arbitrary.

In this case, the President felt that it was his responsibility to find a path through these complexities that respected his understanding of what Americans want, the commitments that he has made, or his own commitments about ethics and morality in the conduct of science. I think he's been pretty clear on it, and I agree with those who feel that his decision does allow stem cell research to go forward in a responsible way.

C&EN: Are you concerned or is the President concerned that some stem cell research may be lost to U.S. institutions because of his policy decision?

MARBURGER: I think that he's satisfied that research can be conducted that will lead to the next steps. He regards his decision as permitting work to go ahead.

C&EN: Many people have called for a redefinition of science policy since the end of the Cold War. The idea is that there should be less emphasis on defense issues and more emphasis on domestic issues, such as health care research, economic growth, and so on. Since we are now waging a war on terrorism, are we back to the Cold War paradigm?

MARBURGER: A lot has happened since the end of the Cold War. There has been a lot of debate and discussion on the role of government in science. One of the consequences of that has been a heightened interest in planning of science programs and in clarifying the missions of the nation's laboratories, and clarifying the science missions of the nation's science funding agencies. As a consequence of all that attention, I think there has already been a reorientation of science policy.

You have to look at what science is being done and what's being funded to see the evidence of that: the enormous success of the [Human] Genome Project, the very rapid advances in health-related research and biological research, but also the exploitation of advances in information technology. We're seeing science done in a different way today. We're seeing an attack on the frontier of complexity in science.

Many of the most exciting science projects have a high degree of data intensity. And that extends across the entire domain of science--huge particle detectors, nuclear physics, the heavy ion collider with the most complex collisions ever observed and that anybody ever tried to work with--but we can work with them now because of developments in computing and information technology. And then in biology, just the determination of some of these deeply complex structures like ribosomes--you never could imagine doing something like that in the past. And then looking at materials atom by atom and trying to build materials from scratch and manipulate them atom by atom. All of this is heavily information intensive.

The applications of this kind of science are not strongly driven by military or Cold War concerns. Science in post-Cold War America is being driven by the intrinsic capabilities that we now have to do science, including information technology and very effective and powerful instrumentation.

The instrumentation aspect of this is important. This largely comes from the physical sciences, and it includes the devices that can rapidly determine atomic-level structure--the ability to simulate and predict chemical reactions, chemical processes. It just changes the way chemistry can be done.

There are many, many areas that are driven by this expanding technology, and the applications are much more embedded in economic and quality-of-life issues--issues related to environmental and other concerns--that have received heightened emphasis following the Cold War.

C&EN: Let's talk about the role of industry for OSTP. What outreach do you see to industry, including the chemical industry?

MARBURGER: The industry mechanism for OSTP is PCAST, which has a heavy industry representation. That's the primary interface of industry. However, I have been meeting and my staff has been meeting directly with industry representatives on security issues and on antiterrorism issues, and we will need some help. I meet with industry organizations and professional societies and teams of people who just want to come and talk about what's going on in science and technology. I enjoy doing that. Part of OSTP's charge from Congress is to work in partnership with industry to see that federal programs are addressing their needs, and so I do that through PCAST and through direct contact.

C&EN: You spoke recently about terrorism and the university. On the one hand, you noted that universities thrive in an open society and that has allowed U.S. research universities, in particular, to attract some of the best minds in the world. Now, because of the concerns about terrorism, we see ideas, for example, from the Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS), which would like universities to help track foreign students, that there should be some control of access to certain research materials for people from particular countries. Could you elaborate on the need to protect our security and at the same time preserve the openness of our academic system?

"The American public expects that universities will pay close attention to their responsibilities for people who come into their institutions who might be prepared to exploit vulnerabilities."
MARBURGER: The American public expects that universities will pay close attention to their responsibilities for people who come into their institutions who might be prepared to exploit vulnerabilities. I stated that very generally on purpose. It's not just tracking foreign students; it's being conscious of the vulnerabilities that institutions like universities afford to people who want to damage society in one way or another, and so it means improving systems for inventory and protection, or securing hazardous materials, or just general procedures within universities that could be exploited in some way or other to conceal terrorist activities.

I am not talking only about foreign students but anyone who would engage in terrorist activities. We need to make sure that we try to be conscious of who some people might be and how to identify them and act responsibly with respect to them. I see foreign students as only part of the issue. INS does have laws and procedures and rules that we need to follow, and, as far as I can tell, universities are willing to follow them. I have asked the universities to discuss these issues on each campus. I think each institution needs to decide for itself where the line between security and freedom will be drawn.

I think that exercise will be valuable for everybody because then, when Congress comes with a proposal or when the Administration comes with a proposal, the universities will have their act together and say, "Well, we understand the need for this and here's what we're prepared to do, so let's talk about it." The universities are a source of great value for our society, and we must continue to have them operate at a high level of quality. But only they can judge when the line will be crossed for their institutions. That doesn't mean that they have a right to stonewall legitimate concerns that society has about vulnerabilities.

I have emphasized that vulnerability comes from actual terrorist activities that might have a symbolic nature on the campus--blowing up a library building or a computer building, for example--or exploiting the freedom we have in that universities tend not to keep very close tabs on people. These are specific areas that universities need to have their own policies on. The more universities do to develop their policies, the easier it will be to achieve agreements with Congress and the Administration.

C&EN: Do you think it is a failing of universities that some of these areas related to security have been neglected in the past?

MARBURGER: To say so would be hindsight. The universities, of course, feel that they have been adequate and responsible. But in hindsight, in view of the events of Sept. 11, universities could do a lot more. And so could the agencies that support universities. The President expects us all to be allies in the war against terrorism, and that includes the universities. Let me follow that immediately by saying that I see no hesitation in the universities.

C&EN: There has been a controversial proposal by the Administration to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What is the President's interest in developing other sources of energy, and will we see policy explorations of that as part of OSTP business?

MARBURGER: Well, there is some energy policy on the table. Vice President Dick Cheney did that, and the Department of Energy is developing energy plans and so forth. I don't have anything particular to add to the discussion at this point. The President does not think of himself as antienvironmental. The President, as I am and many others are, is very concerned about dependence on petroleum from parts of the world that are very unstable, and about the vulnerability of the U.S. to artificial manipulation of energy prices.

I am not an expert on energy policy. I know a little bit about environmental issues. In terms of the technology of energy production, we have technologies that we could take more advantage of, and there are many things in the vice president's report that are pretty good in terms of directions we could move in.

We do need to continue to look at nuclear power, for example. I don't know how widely understood it is yet in the U.S. that, in order to avoid continual increases in carbon dioxide and continually increasing global temperatures, we have to have an energy system that produces no net carbon. There are not many technologies that are scalable that produce no net carbon in the atmosphere. One of them is nuclear fusion; one is nuclear fission; and then we have wind, wave, and solar energy technologies.

C&EN: Your answer touched a little bit on public understanding of science. A recent Department of Education report was not encouraging about the level of science literacy for U.S. elementary school students. Could you comment on that report? What do you see, or what does the President see, as the importance of math and science education? Will there be any involvement of OSTP in efforts to improve math and science education?

MARBURGER: Let me answer the last part of that first. We will be involved in the effort to improve math and science education. The President's "No Child Left Behind" education initiative includes a math and science partnership program, which I strongly support. It focuses on the need to change the character of education in the early years to make science more exciting and to make it more accessible for people to invest the energy required to learn these subjects.

Math and science are regarded as difficult subjects and not worth spending time on because you can get lucrative jobs that don't seem to require that. I think that's a very wrongheaded view. It's clear to me that knowledge in mathematics particularly opens many doors to careers that would otherwise be closed. People just have to understand that.

And basic knowledge of physics is increasingly important because the advances in life sciences amount to reducing biological behavior to physical principles. Everything is sort of converging on physics. We really need to find a way to restore interest in the physical sciences, particularly in mathematics. I agree, the recent Department of Education report has been discouraging, and I hope that some of the things being done in this Administration will improve the situation.

One of the interesting things to me in the report was the confirmation of what we all suspect about the quality of teaching. It is positively correlated with what people learn. I think teacher preparation is important. I think it's important for us to do a better job at educational research--to try to make the research relevant to the actual needs in the classroom, and to try to get the results of sound education research utilized in curriculum development and classroom behavior.

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