Poof, no more science.
David said in 2005: “Anyone coming to the science advisory post without considerable experience in politics is in for some rude shocks.” Of course, a road paved with political savvy doesn’t necessarily lead to the same destination as one paved with scientific rigor. Choosing which to follow was, and remains, the science advisor’s most daunting challenge.
The position of science advisor to the president has its origins before Golden’s recommendation, in the immediate post-WWII period, when Vannevar Bush, Manhattan Project vet and general science visionary, pushed for a centralized U.S. science enterprise. In a 1945 report to Truman (requested by President Roosevelt the year before), “Science – the Endless Frontier,” Bush suggested a permanent “Science Advisory Board” be founded to provide guidance to the executive and legislative branches of government.
Bush’s other recommendation to create a “National Research Foundation” bore fruit in 1950, with the creation of the National Science Foundation, but the position of science advisor needed a spherical-but-quite-pointy-in-parts kick in the pants: The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, in 1957, spurred a frenzy of science-related activity in Washington. NASA was formed in 1958, and President Eisenhower officially appointed James Killian as the first full-time presidential science advisor, with an office at the White House.
Killian, who had been president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was followed by a succession of scientific éminences grises—Manhattan Project alums, Los Alamos physicists, university presidents, and similar experts assumed the advisor post for Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.
When Nixon took office, in 1969, he made some noise about supporting scientific endeavors, and his first appointee followed his predecessors’ trend: Lee Alvin DuBridge, who had also served as an advisor under Truman before the full post was established, was a physicist and the president of the California Institute of Technology. Some scientists dubbed him the “high priest of science” on the West Coast, a title that Eisenhower’s second advisor, George Kistiakowsky, owned on the East Coast. The science clergy, apparently, was well represented at the White House.
At the time of DuBridge’s appointment, the New York Times noted that the advisor has two basic roles: “sorting out for the President the important problems that have scientific and technical content and winning the support of the scientific community for the President’s policies.” Obviously, if a president is scientifically literate and receptive to expert opinion, both roles are made substantially easier. If not, both become something of a problem.
DuBridge, whom the Times described as a “pleasant, slightly rumpled … Mr. Anybody,” had an unremarkable couple of years in the role, pushing for increased federal funding for science and for an end to university-based secret weapons research, among other goals. By early 1970, as White House budget requests for science funding actually fell by 3 percent from the previous year, the scientific community was grumbling that the advisor—which in previous administrations had the president’s ear and substantial influence—had all but fallen off the map.