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Marburger Says Success Has Created Unexpected Challenges for U.S. S&T Research
John H. Marburger III
Stem cell research and climate change may get headlines, but White House science adviser John H. Marburger III told a AAAS audience that S&T policymakers in the United States must focus more on budget and structural imbalances that pose important long-term challenges.
Speaking to the AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy, Marburger said the success of the U.S. investment in science and technology has created a paradox: Increased federal funding has stimulated even greater increases in research capacity.And while the federal government doubled funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that created an "imbalance" in federal investment, with potentially unhealthy bulges in biomedical hiring and construction projects.
"If the number of able competitors increases faster than the amount of money available, everybody will suffer, everybody gets less" he said. "I believe that we have that situation today. This is a very serious problem. Not only does it tend to demoralize and undermine research capacity in the United States, but it tends to increase the friction and the contention out there."
Marburger, a physicist, serves as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP); he is the science adviser to President George W. Bush, a former university president, and a Democrat. Before signing on with the administration several months after Bush took office in 2001, he was director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.
He spoke on 15 November to 35 participants in the prestigious AAAS Leadership Seminar, which covered issues ranging from evolution and creationism in public schools to the esoteric details of federal budget policy. The annual Leadership Seminar is a compressed version of the renowned two-week orientation session given every year to AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows before they begin their year-long assignments in government staffs and agencies. The Seminar brings in an array of front-line experts who offer an on-the-ground, behind-the-scenes look at how S&T policy is made.
"Jack Marburger's talk provided an excellent overview of the many issues that arise in federal S&T policy and how they are handled," observed Steve Nelson, associate director of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS and co-organizer, with SPP director Al Teich, of the week-long Seminar. "The Seminar participants got a clear, first-hand account of how S&T policy issues are dealt with at the highest levels in the executive branch."
During the 80-minute talk, Marburger offered the audience a primer in the workings of his office and its role in the U.S. science and technology system. While the science adviser has a prominent role in many successful projects, the office also helps to resolve conflicts when departments battle over projects or funding. It also often finds itself involved in broader social and political conflicts.
"Science is pretty universally respected in Washington," Marburger said. In fact, he quipped, "science is so respected that anyone with an argument or a case...would like to recruit science in its support."
While the Bush administration has been criticized at times for its positions on high-profile science issues, Marburger told the AAAS group that the criticism was off target. He offered an anecdote about his hiring: When Bush talked to him about taking the job, Marburger said, he reminded the president that he's a Democrat.
"'It shouldn't make any difference in this job,'" he recalled the president saying.
Critics often mistake a values- or an ethics-based disagreement for a scientific disagreement, he said. For example:
Embryonic stem cell research. The national debate over extracting stem cells from days-old embryos is not a scientific debate, Marburger said, but an ethical debate.
"There is no scientific dispute," he said, about the importance of stem cell research and the potential of stem cells to provide future treatments for a range of afflictions. President Bush has put strict controls on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, citing moral objections to the destruction of embryos.
Creationism and evolution. Many scientists and science organizations have objected to what they perceive to be support within the Administration for "teaching the controversy" between evolution and intelligent design or creationism, noting that there is no scientific controversy because evolution is backed by extensive evidence and research. Marburger stressed that the debate has not affected his office.
"No one is putting pressure on me or suggesting that creationism should be a part of science education—that's ridiculous," he said. "I've never heard this discussed in any—in any--of the meetings or forums or private discussions...that I've ever had with anybody in the White House [or federal agencies]."
Climate change. Marburger suggested that critics overlook a crucial fact: "The president has acknowledged that there's too much CO2 (in the atmosphere), it's causing warming, and something needs to be done about it."
But there are arguments about how to respond most effectively. Those arguments, he said, "are very largely economics arguments. They are philosophical arguments about how much you are going to pay now to improve things 50 years from now.
"Finally, just in the past few months, we've begun to see the public debate switch over to the right issue. Instead of debating about whether climate change is happening or not, or whether humans are responsible, let's talk about what is really going to happen in the future and what we're going to do about it. How do we mitigate the impacts?"
While some have speculated that the Democrats' impending takeover of Congress could bring a shift on key science policy issues, Marburger downplayed that possibility.
"Science isn't an every-two-year thing," he said. "The trends in science, the priorities in science, change very slowly."
Currently, some of the issues causing most concern to Marburger are rarely, if ever, in the headlines—imbalance in federal science investment, research capacity outpacing federal research investment, and the need to have national science policy and research decisions based on solid evidence and rigorous study.
Beginning in the late 1990s, U.S. lawmakers began a process that doubled the NIH budget. But at about the same time, he said, "a lot of people began to be concerned about the mismatch in funding between physical science and the biomedical sciences." The American Competitiveness Initiative, proposed by President Bush last year, seeks to narrow that gap by making new investments in the physical sciences.
Meanwhile, Marburger said, a broader change was underway: U.S. spending helped underwrite powerful growth in research capacity—new buildings, new labs, and new staff. "If you go to any major research university today...you will see [construction] cranes," he said. But the portion of the federal discretionary budget devoted to science has held steady for decades at about 11-12%. The result: Pitched competition, which produces winners and losers, fulfillment and frustration.
"This question of how you achieve balance and prioritize among completely different fields of science is an important long-term policy issue," he said.
Marburger repeated a theme he has sounded in past visits with AAAS groups: S&T policy and planning would be enhanced if it could be based more on models and systematic research into what's needed—and what's effective. He calls it "the science of science policy."
For example, he said, policymakers need "workforce models that extend beyond borders."
Noting the dramatic growth of the Chinese S&T sector, he said: "We need a better idea of what China is going to do with all those scientists and engineers. Can they put all of them to work there? Are they all going to come to work over here? What are they going to do? Are companies going to locate to China to take advantage of them, or not?"
With more fine-grained research data on that issue and others, Marburger said, U.S. policymakers will be better able to match policy to global conditions and needs.
Edward W. Lempinen
27 November 2006