ASEE Prism Magazine Online - December 2001
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On Politics

Key Role for Science Adviser

- By Kenneth T. Walsh

The anti-terrorism campaign will inevitably require Marburger to delve into areas no one had anticipated only a few months ago...

In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon September 11, President Bush declared that the war on terrorism will be Job One for his administration. This new emphasis will have many unforeseen consequences, and of them could be an enhancement of the influence of John Marburger as White House science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

When he was first nominated by Bush, Marburger's role was unclear. He was never expected to have trouble winning Senate approval, but since Bush is a notoriously uncerebral man who has never demonstrated much interest in science or technology, it was an open question whether Marburger could have much influence with his boss. The short answer is that he may be more effective than the skeptics predicted.

The antiterrorism campaign will inevitably require Marburger to delve into areas no one had anticipated only a few months ago, such as evaluating from a science and technology perspective the best ways to combat terrorism and improve security at airports, on airplanes, at nuclear facilities, at national laboratories (one of which Marburger headed), and elsewhere. The new science adviser is also well placed to add a voice of reason and common sense to deliberations over how to use technology in the war on terrorism overall, such as in keeping track of would-be terrorists through eavesdropping and using other electronic methods.

Another important factor is that if anybody can be Bush's kind of scientist, it's John Marburger. By all accounts, he is personable, conciliatory, and down to earth, and he schmoozes well—traits that are very important for anyone who wants to get along with the former Texas governor. As director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, he shattered a secretive, isolated subculture that had alienated the surrounding community amid public concern about leaks of radioactive tritium and other problems. “The old administration would barely respond to phone calls and letters,'' says Scott Cullen, counsel to a citizens' group called Standing for Truth About Radiation. Cullen adds that Marburger caused “an amazing turnaround.”

Marburger, a physicist and former college president who ran the Brookhaven lab for three years—until Bush tapped him for the Washington job—met with citizens in libraries and in their living rooms. He established a Community Advisory Council consisting of local activists who met every month with lab representatives. He said “Big Science” could no longer use the Cold War as an excuse to keep the public in the dark and allow scientists to operate on their own. And he lifted morale within the lab itself by getting to know his staff and letting them know he appreciated them. He also showed strong talent as a manager, something Bush prizes.

Although at press time, Marburger was refusing all requests for interviews, an analysis of his past statements and his record shows that his views are very compatible with Bush's, even though he volunteers that he is a lifelong Democrat. He is a supporter of nuclear power. He believes marshalling public support is vital to any civic enterprise. He tells associates he is an “incurable optimist,'' an outlook that the president shares.

Marburger became an authority on nonlinear optics as a teacher at the University of Southern California in the 1970s and served as president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook from 1980-1994, where he built the school's reputation for scientific research. He was born on Staten Island, raised in Woodlawn, Md., graduated from Princeton in 1962, and received his doctorate in applied physics from Stanford University in 1967. He enjoys gardening, woodworking, and horseback riding, although it's doubtful he will have much time to indulge in these hobbies once he joins the White House staff.

It's unclear how much direct acess to the president Marburger will have and to what degree White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card will serve as his intermediary with the Oval Office. Just as important, Bush has already taken various positions on a range of important science and technology issues—such as missile defense, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, embryonic stem-cell research, budget priorities for 2002, and energy development—without Marburger's help. Breaking into the inner circle won't be easy.

But his strong points should overcome the obstacles—especially if Bush believes his new science adviser can strengthen or add new insights to the administration's battle against terrorism. Marburger's public relations skills will be invaluable. “He's very friendly, very personable, a gentleman,'' said Connie Kepert, a member of the citizens' advisory council created by Marburger. Kepert told Newsday, a Long Island newspaper, “He really gave people the feeling that he really did care about their concerns.” And Charles Shank, director of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California said recently, “His real strength is as a communicator. There's a whole range of people who are great scientists but few who are great scientists and great communicators, too.''

As he participates in the inevitable struggles of official Washington—trying to mediate among bureaucrats seeking more money for their pet projects and dealing with the new environment created by the terrorist attacks—personal traits like these will give John Marburger a good chance to be a real player.


Kenneth T. Walsh is chief White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.
He can be reached by e-mail at