There once was an independent bicameral agency of the U.S. Congress that supplied expert analysis of legislation affecting, and affected by, science and technology. This think tank was known as the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). It responded to requests by committees, not individual members of Congress, and its 12-person board comprised of six from each house, spread across the ideological spectrum (Hatch to Kennedy), and operated in a most nonpartisan way.
Those days may seem long gone, but it was only 1995 when the Contract with America effectively dismantled (defunded) OTA—much to the ire of scientists and of a public that has repeatedly argued for its restoration.
The significance of OTA has stirred again, with news of the passing on July 17 of John H. (Jack) Gibbons, at age 86, who served as the agency's director from 1979-92. Before coming to Washington, he was a physicist specializing in energy and environmental issues at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In 1973, as the nation's first major energy crisis dawned, he was appointed inaugural director of the Federal Office of Energy Conservation.
In his 13 years leading OTA, and from 1993-98 as President Clinton's Science Advisor, Jack's scope of influence in policy was far-ranging: defending research budgets; cessation of nuclear testing; supporting nuclear arms control; space; climate change; environment; and health. At the White House, he was instrumental in establishing the National Bioethics Advisory Commission and the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles.
Gibbons was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, recipient of the Leo Szilard Award for Physics in the Public Interest by the American Physical Society, and a board chairman of Population Action International, an advocacy group supporting women's reproductive rights and access to contraception.
To me and hundreds of federal policy staff, Jack Gibbons personified what a leader in the federal government should be—publicly a humble and dedicated public servant, privately a vigilant and prudent analyst—a buffer against political expedience. I served with him from 1986-93 and then in 1997 as a detailee at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. He was a statesman with southern charm and an inexhaustible supply of stories. His penchant for the latter made writing speeches for him a challenge of anticipating where he would insert three-minute "examples."
My affection for Jack is unstinting, for he inspired by example. His curiosity and concern about the world, and the role of the U.S. in it, demonstrated that data could inform, debunk, and even persuade political actors. Moreover, scientists—through their research, advice, and advocacy—could be patriots. Thanks Chief.