Nature columnist David Goldston love to bash the supposed political naivete of science community leaders, and this week is no different (subscription required):
Can anyone cite any decision that has been different because the current head of the OSTP, John Marburger, was not called 'Assistant to the President'? The prominence given to the recommendation about a title speaks volumes about the scientific community's hypersensitivity to perceived slights and its excessive insecurity about its stature, but it says almost nothing about governance... The science community is blind to all this because of its insular focus. It tends to assume that decisions related to science policy primarily reflect attitudes towards scientists and science when in fact they are often driven by broader concerns. As a result, the two reports implicitly asked the wrong question about a president's politics. The best indicator about the future OSTP director's title may be a candidate's views on government secrecy, not science... The reports seem to assume that having a well-known science adviser with good access to the president will mean scientists will be happy for the next four years. But that just isn't the case.
He's talking about the recommendation that the next US president rapidly appoint the Director of the OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy), and that the President restore this position to Special Adviser to the President status, a status which was withdrawn by Bush when he appointed his OSTP director. Goldston is way off base here - his assumption is that all scientists care about is funding, as opposed to good decision making. Maybe a lot of rank-and-file scientists care mainly about funding, but the leaders of the scientific community know this isn't just about spending enough money so that "scientists will be happy for the next four years." Give us a little more credit than that. The President needs to know more than just how much money to allocate to research agencies. We need scientifically informed policy making, and to do that, we need a science adviser with the ear of the President. This idea isn't so controversial when it comes to another complex, technical subject, the economy: the President has a Treasury Secretary and a Council of Economic Advisers, people who are capable of handling the highly technical aspects of economic policy making, who can provide advice to the policy makers and the guy who was actually elected to make the Executive Branch decisions. The President has economists who give him economic advice and lawyers who give him official legal advice - so why shouldn't scientists give him scientific advice, instead of just lawyers, venture capitalists, or political pros? For science we don't necessarily need the equivalent of the CEA, but the President does need someone who can fill that advisory role for science. Goldston asks if any decision Bush made would have been different if he had a cabinet level science adviser, and assumes the answer is no. But that's taking the narrow-minded approach, assuming that science advice should only be about funding. I can think of at least a half-dozen decisions that might have been made differently if Bush had had a trusted scientist giving him advice, including decisions about the feasibility of missile defense, climate observation satellites, next-generation nuclear weapons, alternative energy options, especially biofeuls, EPA regulations, space exploration and bioterrorism threats. Scientists won't have the final say on these policies, but neither do the CEA PhDs on economic issues. That's beside the point. The CEA exists to "to provide the President with objective economic analysis and advice on the development and implementation of a wide range of domestic and international economic policy issues." He needs that same advice for science. The President should appoint a Cabinet-level science adviser. It's about more than funding the NIH and making scientists happy. It's about making decisions in the reality-based world. The whole premise of this website is that science applies to all of us, not just the people who work in the lab. The Presidential science adviser should be appointed based on that assumption as well.