17 January 2013

The Authoritarian Science Myth

The image above shows President Dwight Eisenhower swearing in James Killian as the first science advisor to the US president. Eisenhower rushed through the ceremony because he wanted to leave on a golf trip to Augusta, Georgia. Little appreciated is that James Killian, widely celebrated at the best and most powerful science advisor was not a scientist at all.

Writing in yesterday's New York Times, physicist Laurence Krauss repeats a common call for scientists to occupy a position more central to political power:
Scientists’ voices are crucial in the debates over the global challenges of climate change, nuclear proliferation and the potential creation of new and deadly pathogens. But unlike in the past, their voices aren’t being heard.
He wistfully invokes a mythological golden age of scientific authoritarianism:
The men who built the bomb had enormous prestige as the greatest physics minds of the time. They included Nobel laureates, past and future, like Hans A. Bethe, Richard P. Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Ernest O. Lawrence and Isidor Isaac Rabi

In June 1946, for instance, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had helped lead the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., argued that atomic energy should be placed under civilian rather than military control. Within two months President Harry S. Truman signed a law doing so, effective January 1947.
There are two problems with Krauss's diagnosis and prescription. First, science and scientists have never been more central to policy making than they are today. Second, the golden age of scientific authority that he invokes is a fable that scientists tell themselves to justify their current demand for more authority in politics.

These themes are discussed in our 2009 paper playfully titled, "The Rise and Fall of the Science Advisor to the President of the United States," published in Minerva and here in PDF. The science advisor is arguably the most prominent scientist in the US government and the focus of decades of discussion about authority and power of science in government.

Here is what we concluded:
Over the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st governance can be characterized by an ever increasing reliance on specialized expertise. There are several reasons for this trend, which include the challenges of dealing with risks to human well being and security—from terrorism to the safety of food supplies, from natural disasters to human influences on the environment, from economic shocks, globalization, and many more. Some of these risks are the result of purposive technological innovation, such as the invention and proliferation of nuclear technologies beginning with the Manhattan Project during World War II. Because innovation can create new risks, a new proactive politics has emerged seeking to limit technological innovation and diffusion. Examples of this dynamic can be seen in efforts to limit the presence of genetically modified crops in Europe, to contain research on stem cells in the United States, and to militate against the consequences of economic globalization around the world.
In this context, the need for expert advice in government has increased exponentially. But one of the effects of the triumph of expertise has been the diminishment of the president’s science advisor as the ‘‘go-to’’ individual on issues with a scientific or technical component. In many respects, the science advisor is just another person with a Ph.D. staffing the Executive Offices of the President. President Obama received high marks from the scientific community for appointing a number of prominent scientists to administrative positions, including a Nobel Prize-winning physicist to Secretary of Energy, illustrating that the science advisor s but one of many highly qualified people in an administration. The science advisor does have a very unique role in helping to oversee and coordinate the budgets of agencies that support science, but even here the science advisor’s role is subject tothe idiosyncrasies of each administration.

In the future it seems improbable that the science advisor’s role would return to the exalted position that it held for a brief time during the Eisenhower Administration. In any case, that exalted position may be more mythical than real, which has set the stage today for some unrealistic expectations about the position.
Do read Krauss' piece and then read ours. Feel free to come back and comment.

For further reading, see our book on presidential science advisors.