Science in the Oval Office: 1933–2016

Although science-related issues are rarely discussed during an election campaign, every president must be ready to address them once in office. How have past presidents responded? With help from a score of experts (for more of their thoughts, see story that follows the timeline), we have analyzed the track records of the past 13 presidents, and identified key science-related issues and decisions they faced. We have also included major events that defined their time in the White House.

Franklin Roosevelt

1933–45

Events: Great Depression, World War II

    Policies:

  • Top-secret Manhattan project to build the atom bomb
  • Rural electrification through the Tennessee Valley Authority and a national network of hydroelectric dams
  • Asks science adviser Vannevar Bush for a report, Science: The Endless Frontier, that enshrines principle of government support for academic research and training
  • Signs legislation creating the National Cancer Institute

Harry Truman

1945–53

Events: Start of the Cold War, Korean War

    Policies:

  • Orders dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan and the development and testing of the thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb
  • Signs laws creating the Atomic Energy Commission, National Science Foundation (NSF) and Office of Naval Research

Dwight Eisenhower

1953–61

Events: Sputnik

    Policies:

  • Signs legislation creating NASA
  • Catalyzes creation of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
  • Signs international treaty preserving Antarctica as a neutral site for scientific exploration, a follow-up to the International Geophysical Year
  • Oversees post-Sputnik funding boom to support research and advanced scientific training
  • Creates mechanism for providing science advice to the president and federal agencies

John Kennedy

1961–63

Events: Cuban missile crisis

    Policies:

  • Proposes space program to build heavy launch rockets capable of landing humans on the moon
  • Signs Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to end underwater and atmospheric explosions and limit underground testing
  • Signs legislation enabling firms to launch commercial communications satellites

Lyndon Johnson

1963–69

Events: Vietnam War buildup

    Policies:

  • Backs funding for Apollo program to send astronauts to the moon
  • DARPA’s support for computer science leads to ARPA Network, precursor of the internet
  • Authorizes extensive use of defoliant Agent Orange as an offensive weapon in Vietnam

Richard Nixon

1969–74

Events: End of Vietnam War, oil embargo

    Policies:

  • Signs major environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act
  • Signs Biological Weapons Convention, prohibiting development, production, and stockpiling
  • Negotiates Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Soviet Union limiting each nation to two sites and 100 defensive missiles
  • Signs National Cancer Act and declares “war on cancer”
  • Begins development of reusable space shuttle to low Earth orbit
  • Proposes United States build supersonic passenger aircraft, but Congress kills funding

Gerald Ford

1974–77

Events: Energy crisis, swine flu

    Policies:

  • Signs law creating White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and new presidential advisory body
  • White House backs federal funding for recombinant DNA research after Asilomar conference identifies safe path for such research

Jimmy Carter

1977–81

Events: Energy crisis, Three Mile Island

    Policies:

  • Promotes energy efficiency and massive program to produce synfuels extracted from oil shale with goal of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil
  • Creates departments of energy and education
  • Signs Bayh-Dole Act, which aims to speed commercialization of government-funded research by allowing academic researchers to claim ownership of intellectual property
  • Opposed Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project, in line with stance of many arms control experts that it would create new supplies of plutonium

Ronald Reagan

1981–89

Events: Proxy wars, AIDS epidemic

    Policies:

  • Proposes Strategic Defense Initiative, which includes space- and land-based lasers for shooting down Soviet nuclear missiles
  • Signs Montreal Protocol curbing use of chemicals that destroy the ozone layer
  • Backs expansion of Small Business Innovation Research program, begun at NSF, to nurture high-tech startups
  • Backs Sematech chip manufacturing consortium to help U.S. companies compete globally
  • Proposes Space Station Freedom, which ultimately evolves into the International Space Station
  • Backs construction of Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a giant underground accelerator to study collisions of high-energy subatomic particles

George H. W. Bush

1989–93

Events: Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, first Iraq war, breakup of Soviet Union

    Policies:

  • Backs major revision of the Clean Air Act aimed at curbing emissions from coal-fired power plants that contribute to acid rain
  • Signs legislation funding the Human Genome Project
  • Enters negotiations that ultimately produce the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • Rejects signing the Convention on Biological Diversity

Bill Clinton

1993–2001

Events: Economic boom, globalization

    Policies:

  • Signs Kyoto Protocol on climate change
  • Congress cancels SSC, the giant accelerator begun under Reagan and backed by Bush, after cost overruns, delays, and technical difficulties
  • International Space Station construction begins
  • Supports development of high-speed scientific computing network that evolves into internet, and related policies on managing this new way to share information

George W. Bush

2001–09

Events: 9/11 attacks, anthrax letters, begins Iraq and Afghanistan wars

    Policies:

  • Exit from Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty
  • Limits federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research to about 60 existing cell lines
  • Signs America COMPETES Act to update research and education policies for key science agencies
  • Backs White House–initiated effort to study research productivity and practices, often called the Science of Science Policy

Barack Obama

2009–present

Events: Global recession, oil spill in Gulf of Mexico, continuation of Iraq and Afghanistan wars

    Policies:

  • Backs use of ARPA-Energy to accelerate research and development in the field of sustainable energy
  • Signs Paris climate agreement and issues numerous regulations aimed at curbing U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases
  • Supports massive, short-term funding burst to spur economic recovery from financial collapse, including research and scientific infrastructure
  • Expands national network of advanced manufacturing centers to improve the research base for this key industrial sector
  • Proposes and implements initiatives on brain and precision medicine research

Assembling the timeline: Experts weigh in on who should get credit

As we set out to assemble this timeline, we knew that attributing major U.S. science policy developments over the last 80 years to the man occupying the White House at the time would be controversial. So we asked some 20 experts who have spent years tracking and shaping these policies to help us make the calls.

Not surprisingly, those experts don’t always agree on who deserves credit or blame for every major policy decision. One reason, as President John Kennedy noted ruefully after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, is that “victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.” (And yes, we know Kennedy borrowed the quote from an Italian diplomat writing about World War II.)

But equally important is the fact that the internet—or the human genome project, a biological weapons treaty, and the Clean Air Act, for that matter—doesn’t come to pass because of one person, or even one administration. Standing up a new federal agency or funding a particular research initiative requires the assent of Congress, for one thing. And an individual legislator may deserve more credit than a sitting president for actually making something happen. Policymaking also takes time: Attempts to make permanent a corporate research tax credit, for example, spanned several administrations before President Barack Obama finally signed the provision into law last year.

So what do the experts think about our list? Yale University science historian Daniel Kevles warned us about paying too much attention to Vannevar Bush’s Science, the Endless Frontier report on the future of U.S. science, commissioned by President Franklin Roosevelt as World War II drew to a close. “The Bush report is talismanic for scientists because it recommended the principle that the federal government establish peacetime support for basic scientific research and training,” he points out. “But if you read its contents, you will see that most of its particular recommendations were ignored.”

The 1945 report is venerated in part because of the overriding importance to scientists of its subject matter, that is, federal funding of university research. And given their political preferences, many academics tend to reflexively credit Democratic administrations when research budgets grow and blame Republicans when they stay flat or shrink.

But it’s not that simple, says Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Washington, D.C.–based Association of American Universities. Both parties have historically supported investments in basic research, he notes, and the circuitous path for the annual budget—from a president’s request to a final congressional appropriations bill up to a year later—complicates attempts to assign credit or blame for spending shifts. For example, “you mention the America COMPETES Act,” Smith wrote us, referring to the legislation passed by a Democratic Congress in 2007 that endorsed major budget increases at three key federal research agencies. “But don’t forget that [Republican] President George W. Bush called for ‘doubling funding for the physical sciences’ in his 2006 State of the Union address, and his American Competitiveness Initiative proposed significant increases over a 10-year period for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.” Those increases didn’t materialize. But, in a sense, a Democratic Congress was simply following a Republican president’s lead.

The terrain surrounding space policy is equally treacherous. The long time frames and enormous cost required to send humans to Mars, for example, afford opponents many opportunities to whittle down or kill such projects. At the same time, such projects often become symbols of national pride, and the economic benefits that can accrue to many regions of the country create powerful constituencies.

The International Space Station is a good example of that complex interplay of politics and economics. President Ronald Reagan greenlighted a space station dubbed Freedom to assert U.S. hegemony in space over the Soviet Union in the 1980s. “But it was President [Bill] Clinton who ‘internationalized’ the space station” by inviting in other nations, including Japan and Russia, notes Chris Hill, a veteran Washington, D.C., insider on technology policy now consulting from Knoxville, Tennessee. “That decision gave life to a near-moribund project while also creating ‘space’ for U.S. and Russian scientists to work together after the fall of the USSR.”

Presidential decisions affecting how science advice is delivered to the White House may seem like the quintessential inside-the-Beltway topic. But it’s on our list because we think it matters. At the same time, deciding what actions to attribute to which president is tricky. For example, we have credited Roosevelt with getting the ball rolling on creating a formal science advisory process, but President Dwight Eisenhower with actually setting up the first White House office to stay abreast of scientific developments.

Since then, the state of science advising has ebbed and flowed. President Richard Nixon disbanded his council of scientific advisers in 1973 after its views clashed with his plans for an antiballistic missile system and supersonic airliners. But Congress rescued it 3 years later with legislation giving the science adviser two hats—one as someone who must report to Congress as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the other as a confidential presidential adviser.

A quarter-century later, many scientists excoriated President George W. Bush for reorganizing his staff so that his science adviser, John Marburger, didn’t report directly to him, a move they saw as a repudiation of the law’s intent. And in 2009, they roundly praised President Obama for restoring that direct relationship with his adviser, John Holdren. It remains to be seen how the next president will choose to get his or her technical advice.