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John H. Marburger III: A Look Back—and a Look to the Next Administration
John H. Marburger III
After nearly seven years as the White House science adviser, John H. Marburger III came to the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy in a reflective mood: He defended the record of President George W. Bush in research and development spending, expressed regret for some major initiatives that have yet to take off, and offered some advice about the challenges awaiting his successor.
But in a keynote address that spanned a range of issues, Marburger consistently stressed the need for scientists to take the long view. "Policies significant for science get shaped over a long period of time, very rarely overnight," he said. And he urged scientists to make personal and professional sacrifices in order to take part in that process.
The policy context for the incoming presidential administration "begins immediately with the need for scientists and engineers who may be recruited by the next president to prepare themselves to say 'yes,' despite what may seem to be enormous down-sides to this and other senior positions in the executive branch," he told a crowd of several hundred researchers and science policy experts.
"Whoever becomes president, whatever party gains or loses power, and regardless of the specific policy environment in the next administration, our government needs men and women who understand the science and engineering machinery in our society, and are prepared to make it work for our nation."
The AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy is the premier event of its kind in the United States, focusing on federal budget and R&D issues; public- and private-sector research; education; innovation; and other high-profile domestic and international S&T issues. The 33rd annual Forum, held just a few blocks from the White House on 8-9 May, attracted more than 500 policymakers from government, education, industry, and other fields, plus more than two dozen journalists.
For Marburger, it was seventh—and likely the last—appearance at the Forum in his capacity as science adviser. While many speakers at the two-day gathering expressed frustration with Washington's recent inaction on issues such as innovation, climate change and energy, Marburger said that President George W. Bush's science policy was, of necessity, shaped by the response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
Overall research and development spending by the federal government has risen nearly $30 billion in constant 2000 dollars—or more than 40%—since Bush took office in 2001, he said. In real terms, he added, federal R&D spending under the Bush administration was 42% higher than under the administration of President Bill Clinton. Investment in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was 66% higher in Bush's two terms than in Clinton's, he added. [The doubling of the NIH budget was an initiative with bipartisan support begun in Clinton's second term.]
Critics have argued that the preponderance of that investment has been in homeland security and defense R&D, and that R&D spending in numerous key agencies actually has declined in real terms in recent years. "Everyone has their own ideas about how it could have been distributed differently, both among fields of science and over the years," he acknowledged. "But there cannot be any question that this country has significantly boosted spending on research during this administration.
"I think it will actually be difficult to match the increases in research funding that have occurred during the Bush years."
Marburger said three "remarkable" issues have galvanized consensus that shaped Bush S&T policy: the doubling of the NIH budget; the emergence of R&D related to homeland security; and the need for reform in U.S. innovation policy. Of those, only the third remains unfulfilled, he said.
He was critical of Congress for failing to fully fund Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) and the America COMPETES Act, both of which are designed to strengthen research, education and the innovation infrastructure. Under ACI, funding was to be doubled over 10 years for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He said the failure to fully commit to the innovation agenda "is one of the most serious pieces of unfinished policy business begun in this administration."
Confronted by such challenges, the next administration should seek to have its science policy team appointed and at work as soon as possible, Marburger said. "Beginnings are important," he observed. "Things need to get started immediately to take advantage of the sense of opportunity that always occurs with a new Congress and a new administration. I came to Washington nine months after the term had begun, and things were already rolling by that time."
As he has been during his previous talks to the Forum, Marburger was sharply critical of Congress' use of "earmarks"—the budget allocations given to specific performers for specific R&D projects, without peer review. Even if the projects are worthy, he said, they diminish the nation's ability to pursue a comprehensive, systematic program of research. He noted that a recent AAAS analysis had found such spending totaled $4.5 billion this year, coming at the expense of agency research budgets and other peer-reviewed projects.
"Enlightened organizations representing large numbers of constituents here in Washington have made some efforts over the years to persuade their members that they need to advocate for broad programs, or for agency funding, and not for specific projects that seek to avoid review before receiving funds," he said. "They have not had much success."
But even as he was chiding Congress and parrying jabs from Bush administration critics, Marburger was philosophical about the past and future of the nation's R&D funding. As a basis for his discussion, he cited "Does Science Policy Exist, and If So Does it Matter?" a paper by Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University.
The allocation process inevitably is marked by conflict and trade-offs, he said; similarly, the pattern of allocations inevitably is subject to the disruptions of war, natural disasters, and economic cycles. And so, while Congress in the past two years has failed to provide funding for important science-related programs its own members have approved, and while it may not be able to produce a 2009 budget by the deadline this year, such things are to be expected, he said.
There are "huge fluctuations associated with events that may seem highly singular and catastrophic, such as war, hurricanes, and economic bubbles, but recur in nearly every administration," he said. "Regardless of the circumstances, the give-and-take of politics—including all the partisan dealing, all the lobbying, and all the local issues that intrude on the national scene—ends up giving research about the same fraction of the discretionary budget every year in administration after administration.
"Exactly how this happens each year is somewhat mysterious. It's like trying to infer the laws of thermodynamics from the behavior of the individual molecules in a gas. The small-scale motion is chaotic and irreproducible, but the overall behavior always comes out the same."
Marburger also used the occasion of his address to express gratitude to AAAS. While he had disagreed with past budget analysis by AAAS and others that did not acknowledge the significance of earmarks, he praised this year's report on the issue by Kei Koizumi, who directs the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program.
And as he urged scientists and engineers to enlist for service in the federal government, he noted the important contributions made by the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows. Hundreds of researchers have gone on to high-impact government careers after spending a year in the AAAS Fellowship working for Congress and a variety of Executive Branch agencies.
Marburger praised AAAS and partner organizations "for sponsoring and expanding the all-important AAAS Fellows programs that not only increase Washington's technical sophistication, but also spread appreciation among technical communities for how Washington works, and the nature of its rewards for a scientist or engineer."
11 June 2008