When a President Banishes Science From the White House

Since the 1950s, presidential science advisors have juggled researchers’ and politicians’ demands—except when Nixon abolished his administration’s entire Science Advisory Committee.

The Apollo XI astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin laugh with President Richard Nixon aboard the USS Hornet in 1969.
The Apollo XI astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin with President Richard Nixon aboard the USS Hornet in 1969  (Reuters)

In 1950, William T. Golden, a confidant of Harry Truman, recommended the president create a position in the administration to provide guidance on some of the most complex and critical issues of the time—an official science advisor. As Golden later pointed out, the job had a long history, dating back to humanity’s first “executives”: Adam and Eve.

“The serpent was, of course, the first Science Advisor,” Golden wrote. ”Original sin or initiation of scientific research, the outcome should not discourage the quest for knowledge.”

Truman took a first step and appointed the electrical engineer Oliver Buckley to an advisory position the following year. Ever since, presidential science advisors have doled out knowledge on everything from nuclear weapons to climate change, theoretically offering an expert guide to issues generally outside elected officials’ training.

But that process hasn’t always played out as it should. In 1973, Richard Nixon flipped the Biblical script, and banished the serpent from Eden. He’d grown increasingly dismissive of the advice coming from scientific experts, and when his second official science advisor, Edward E. David, Jr., resigned the post (just as the first one had done, a few years earlier), Nixon decided the executive branch of government didn’t need such advice, and abolished the position entirely.

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.

Only a few months later, DuBridge resigned. Complaints in Congress and elsewhere arose “that the nation lacked a cohesive science policy and that Dr. DuBridge had done little to resolve the issue.”

Enter Edward E. David, Jr., DuBridge’s replacement. If DuBridge was a “high priest” of science, David was an altar boy. An electrical engineer by training, David had worked for Bell Labs; the Times editorial board wrote that he was “so little known outside his specialized field that he is not even included in Who’s Who.”

His first months as science advisor to Nixon included a push for new types of nuclear reactors and a plan to reorganize the “hydra-headed” federal science apparatus. But in late 1970, leaders seemed to feel no better about the situation than when DuBridge was in office. “Science is not a high priority item [in the Administration] at the moment,” said Philip Handler, the president of the National Academy of Sciences at the time. “The system is squealing with pain.”

A look at federal spending on R&D bears this out. It was right around the point that Nixon took office that budgets took a nosedive, both in terms of dollar amounts and as a percentage of government outlays. Though the drops continued into the Ford administration, at no point in modern history has science seen such sharp decreases in federal funding as during Nixon’s tenure. In 1969, non-defense R&D represented 21.2 percent of non-defense discretionary spending. By 1974, that number was 14 percent. Nixon noted in his early Presidential budget messages a support for science and small increases in the NSF’s budget, but the totals over his time in office suggest he never viewed scientific support as a priority.

Stanford biochemist Paul Berg, who won the Nobel Prize less than a decade later, said in 1973 that budget cutbacks represented “the virtual dismantling of the foremost health sciences research program in the world.”

At the White House, Edward David’s position was also eroding. Later, DuBridge would say that White House staff slowly “built an impenetrable wall around the President.” Many scientific leaders wanted more money for basic health research, argued that the supersonic-transport program so championed by the White House was a waste, and generally opposed the Vietnam War—not positions Nixon would have taken kindly to.

Unable to penetrate that wall, David as well submitted his resignation in January 1973. “Ed feels less than useful,” one White House source told the Times that year. “He likes them, they like him, and it’s all very awkward.”

Awkward, maybe, but the divide certainly appeared more fundamental. Instead of appointing a successor, Nixon abolished the post of science advisor to the president, along with the President’s Science Advisory Committee, which had been in place since 1951. And it didn’t stop there. At around the same time as David’s departure, the assistant Secretary for Health, the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service, and even the director of the National Institutes of Health all were ousted or resigned.

The journalist Daniel Greenberg wrote in the New York Times at the time that “Mr. Nixon, who is demonstrably not above grudgery, does not like the academic world, including its substantial scientific component, probably for the well established reason that the academic world long ago decided that it did not like Mr. Nixon.”

The aftermath of Nixon’s dismantling of the White House science apparatus was characterized by confusion about how science should be treated, and “expressions of dismay,” in the Times’ words, from DuBridge and the other former advisors at the lack of support at the federal level. The Nixon administration sputtered to its ignominious end without ever letting science back in the door.

There was a push to reinstate the advisor position under Gerald Ford, and the former NSF director H. Guyford Stever eventually did take the post. Ford himself later wrote: “In my view, there is still a need for a strong White House Science and Technology Office. Without such competent technical assistance a President could, and probably would, make serious errors of judgment affecting our nation’s future security, health, and prosperity.”

Still, in the years since Ford’s reinstatement of a science advisor, the disconnect between presidential and scientific priorities has repeatedly reared its head. The science advisor position has at times seemed more a cheerleader for administration policy than an advocate for scientific progress. For example, in the 1980s, Reagan science advisor George Keyworth was a prominent champion of the doomed Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as the Star Wars missile defense system, despite ample warnings of its infeasibility from the scientific community. He defended the president against budgeting concerns and blamed scientists for “pork barrel squabbles.”

And then there’s one of the most prominent of presidential science-related failures: Reagan’s silence on the AIDS crisis, which he failed to even mention until 1985 (with a longer speech on the issue lacking until 1987). Would a stronger science-advising apparatus, involving skeptical advisors and the full Science Advisory Committee also abolished by Nixon, have pushed Reagan to move earlier, and perhaps helped save lives?

That cheerleading nature has in some ways continued for decades. George W. Bush, who was frequently accused of putting politics or ideology before science, appointed a well-respected physicist, John Marburger, to the advisor post, only to force him into defending indefensible positions on stem-cell research, global warming, and other issues.

At its best, the science advisor position has pushed the White House toward a scientifically important agenda; witness John Holdren’s efforts to aggressively attack climate change in the latter part of Obama’s presidency. At its worst, the position is little more than a smokescreen—a science advisor makes it look as though science matters to the administration, even if it doesn’t.

Years after his resignation, Edward David himself said that he should have been “a little more skeptical” of the Nixon Administration’s strong-on-science promises. “Science and politics may meet in the White House,” he wrote, “but they don’t mix well.”