John Marburger's Impact on U.S. Science Policy

Those paying tribute to John Marburger, a physicist and science adviser to President George W. Bush who died last week of cancer at the age of 70, say that their respect for the man far overshadows any criticism of his boss. Preserving a reputation for honesty and integrity after 4 decades in academia and government is no mean feat, they point out. And it's even more impressive for someone who led a major research university and a national laboratory before coming to Washington in 2001 to serve in an Administration widely regarded as having little use for science.

"What a wonderful career he had, as president of Stony Brook University and then director of Brookhaven National Laboratory before being named science adviser," says Sherry Boehlert, a fellow New Yorker and longtime Republican congressman who served as chairman of the House science committee during the first 6 years of Marburger's 8-year tenure (a longevity record) as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "The challenge he faced was serving a president who didn't really want much scientific advice, and who let politics dictate the direction of his science policy," says Boehlert, who notes his "warm" personal relationship with the 43rd president. "And he was in the unenviable position of being someone who had earned the respect of his scientific colleagues while having to be identified with policies that were not science-based."

Bush's science policies were under constant attack from Nobel laureates and major scientific organizations. They accused the Bush Administration of reducing funding for research and suppressing and ignoring scientific evidence across many fields, from the human drivers of climate change to the research value of embryonic stem cells. In every case, however, Marburger defended the White House's position. Some of the attacks were simply partisan, he would say, while others—especially the criticism of the president's budget requests to Congress—were willful distortions of the Administration's actual record.

"There were some good years, especially for the physical sciences and for the agencies that support them," admits Neal Lane, who served as the National Science Foundation (NSF) director and presidential science adviser under Bill Clinton. Marburger "was very much in favor of more support for basic research," says Lane, citing a 2006 Bush proposal for a 10-year doubling of research budgets at three key agencies that a Democratic Congress would enact the following year as the America COMPETES Act.

Lane, one of many prominent scientists who signed a 2004 petition lamenting what they saw as the dismal state of science under the Bush Administration, says he was always careful to separate the messenger from the message. "We were criticizing the Administration, not the science adviser," says Lane. "And while many of us didn't like Jack's response, we understood that he had to respond that way, or resign. ... And while some people would have jumped ship, he stayed and decided to do the best job that he could. And I think he was right to do so. I've been a champion of Jack all along."

A longtime friend and fellow science administrator, William Madia, says Marburger's staying power came from his down-to-earth management style. "He brought peace and rationality to controversial issues. He exerted a calming influence. He would stay above the fray, and he wasn't trying to drive the agenda," says Madia, Stanford University's vice president for the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and former director of two other Department of Energy national labs. That last trait was especially valuable in the Bush White House, notes Madia, who says he recommended Marburger for the job after turning it down himself. "Marburger would tell me, 'Look, I work for the president. I'm just trying my best to move the ball forward. But I've never been locked out.' It really angers me when people say he was simply a puppet."

Ironically, Marburger's most lasting legacy may be as midwife to an emerging field known as the science of science policy. Based on the idea that politicians can't be good stewards of science without understanding what shapes a nation's ability to foster innovation and to reap the benefits from it, it looks at everything from tax, immigration, and patent policies to training the next generation of scientists and ensuring that they have the means to conduct world-class research. When asked if the federal government should double the budgets of basic research agencies such as NSF, for example, Marburger would insist that any boost in spending should be preceded by a clear description of the goals to be achieved and evidence that additional funding is likely to accomplish those goals. NSF now runs a grants program aimed at answering those questions, as well as leading an interagency effort to collect and analyze the impact of federal spending on scientific innovation.

Marburger is also credited with defending the concept of scientific exchanges across national borders after the September 2001 terrorist attacks led many politicians to demand more restrictions on the free flow of people and ideas. "He had to decide which battles to pick, and reopening the United States to foreign scientists was one of them," says David Goldston, former chief of staff to the House science committee under Boehlert and now director of government affairs at the National Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. "He was a central player in that debate."