Interview: Marburger defends R&D policies

By PHIL BERARDELLI, United Press International  |  June 23, 2004 at 2:33 PM
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John H. Marburger III, science adviser to President George W. Bush, is a man in a hot seat. The former director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y., and former president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is one of the few Democrats in an administration that has come under increasing fire for its position on several important, science-related matters. In an interview with United Press International, Marburger defended the administration's positions on these issues.

Q: There does seem to be a very strong perception in the scientific community that this administration is not serious about science, and the latest analysis of the federal budget shows a very sharp decrease coming in research and development spending. Is this correct, and if not, how did it get to be that way?

A: This administration's been very generous to science, more so than the previous administration, and that's factually borne out by increases almost across the board in science areas. You can say the figures speak for themselves.

Q: Why don't people see it that way? What is driving the perception?

A: This administration's been engaged in some very controversial issues that have a lot of salience and a lot of passion, a lot of heat associated with them on both what you might call the conservative and the liberal sides. And there's some very high volume advocates that are critical of the administration ... very strong environmental advocacy groups particularly, but also voices associated with health issues, particularly reproductive technology and the various things associated with that, such as stem cells and so forth.

Almost from the beginning of this administration, there's been a very high level of sort of rather shallow dialogue. When I say "high level" I mean high volume level, not necessarily high level of sophistication. And the public has been exposed to a dialogue of extremes on these issues, and I think that public perceptions may be affected by that.

The issues of health and environment are typically issues that science has difficulty with because of the huge number of variables and the possibility of many influences occurring that have to be sorted out in medical and some environmental areas. The techniques for sorting them out are epidemiological, a lot of statistics, a lot of uncontrolled variables and contention even among scientists about the details of what it means and what the right way of proceeding is.

One of the reasons that these issues are more on the table today than they were is that we have been tools for dealing with them. We have more and more capability for having very complex issues. I'm talking about computational capabilities and even the possibility of organizing large numbers of distributed inputs for information censored networks or networks of scientists or communities of scientists that can pool their information through the Internet and so forth.

There are new tools of science that are available to help deal with some of these issues, so over the years you've seen increasing presence of science in some issues that were dealt with on a much more shallow basis in the past.

But you still have advocacy sort of attempting to reduce issues to their simplest possible components, and to support principles regardless of what the complexity of the picture is underneath. I think planet change is the best example of that, where there's a fair amount of -- the scientific community doesn't disagree a lot about the planet change or climate and science but it perceives the whole planet science issue in a much more complex way than the debate over Kyoto Protocols, for example, which is almost not even a science debate.

So there is I think a long-term trend toward increasing -- there's increasing science content to issues that are almost inherently controversial and have emotional ties to them, particularly in environment and health, and I think we'll continue to see an increasing level of attention and debate ... associated with these things.

So you have that sort of background which isn't unique to this administration, so it's going to be there and you're going to have contending single-interest groups and advocates.

Then we had the bitterly contested election in 2000 and have another one coming up, where the different camps have tended to characterize each other in over-simplified terms. I think there is a pretty obvious strategy there to try to portray this administration as anti-environment regardless of what it does, and to interpret the actions of the administration in a political context.

Those are facts of life for the time we are in, and it affects the science community as well.

Q: But recognizing that this situation is there, what can be done about it to lower the temperature of the debate, to make the debate more productive and to find some common ground?

A: I think the right thing to do is to focus on the processes that we have that work quite well for science. Science is very strong in this country. It's stronger than anywhere else in the world by far. One of the reasons for that is we do have a longstanding tradition of independence in science and peer review, the openness of the conduct of science, the evaluation of science. The system of federal funding since World War II has had substantial components of independence. And I think focusing on those processes is what we do in the best possible approach.

For example, in this administration particularly we use the National Academies very frequently to resolve issues that seem to be getting sort of unnecessarily contentious. My office works very hard to extract issues that are generating disagreement either within the administration or between the administration and outside groups, and transfer them to the National Academies, which has a reputation for being independent. And then we try very hard to take their reviews and recommendations seriously.

Q: Acknowledging that we are in a very serious situation with the war on terrorism, and need to defend against that, the numbers for federal investment in non-defense and non-homeland security R&D for the next number of years look like they're going to be constricted. How much of an impact is that going to have?

A: First of all, people are looking at these numbers and making sweeping statements about what's going to happen. I don't think you can predict what's going to happen that way. We all know -- Republicans, Democrats, the administration and Congress -- that science and technology are important for innovation and we've got to continue to invest in them. Nobody is saying that science is not important.

We also know we have unprecedented fractions of our domestic discretionary budget and historical highs of GDP devoted to research. We're way ahead of the game, but we also know that the game is changing and we have to have priorities that might be a little different from the past, and probably we're going to have to keep changing those priorities as the game changes, as we move ahead, deciding which technologies are important, and so forth.

We just made a huge investment in biomedical research. We dominate that field and everybody around the world knows it, so we're ahead in biotechnology and biomedical research in a way that no other country can match, and it will take a long time for that lead to be lost.

There are other fields where we're probably more vulnerable to being matched in innovations by some other countries, and we have to pay attention to those, and those should be made priorities, and in whatever funding context we have, we should divert money to those things.

Q: Can you specify?

A: Sure. Nanotechnology is a good one, and energy-related technologies.

Q: I wasn't aware we were lagging in nano research funding.

A: It's a relatively new field. Consider that half of the category called federal science and technology funding -- basically the non-defense part -- is in the National Institutes of Health. That means nanotechnology is in the other half, so it means we're just not as dominant in that area. If you look at the amounts of money we budget explicitly for nanotechnology, it's not much different from what Japan is budgeting explicitly for nanotechnology. So you could say Japan is comparable to the United States in its investment in nanotechnology.

On the other hand, the United States is investing in a lot of other stuff that's relative to nanotechnology, but we don't count it in that budget, like the support for the National Synchrotron Light Sources, or the Spallation Neutron Source, both of which are major materials science facilities. We don't count that in the nanotechnology funding, and there are a lot of other things sponsored by the Departments of Energy and Defense that are nano-related but not included in that budget.

We've made nano a priority and we've tried to focus funding, so even if you look at the FY '05 budget request, and it looks like DOE's Office of Science budget is pretty flat relative to FY '04, we're still building the nano centers in each of the national laboratories that have these major facilities. We're investing preferentially in things that should keep us competitive, and what we should be looking for is the prioritization of whatever funds we do have so we don't fall behind.

I expect to see -- and we've seen it already in this administration, despite the fact that in the past four years there have been major investments in at least some of the big science agencies -- investments made with those priorities in mind. Certain types of programs will get more funding than other types, and I would expect that to continue to happen in the future.

Q: Are these budget trends pretty well set?

A: There's a pretty broad consensus of the importance of science, so the combination of administrative and congressional actions taken over the years has added significantly more to the numbers than what had been projected in comparable exercises in the past.

My aim is to point out that this administration had taken us to a higher plateau -- a higher level of funding than we had going in, a significantly higher level of support for the technical infrastructure of the nation in R&D, and that puts us in a much better position to weather whatever storms we may have associated with working our way out of the deficit and funding military actions that are needed.

Q: Where did this impetus come from? Did it come from the president on down, or did it come from a specific body that said we need to do this, we need to ramp up on the funding, and then it was accepted as needed?

A: It's dangerous to try to disentangle these things because all parties involved understand where the other parties come from. I would put it this way: There's a consensus in government today that science is important, and this administration is part of that consensus and it has made budget requests that are consistent with a substantial build-up in R&D investment, and major parts of it were due directly to administrative actions.

The president made a commitment in the 2000 elections to continue the doubling initiative that was begun in Congress in the previous administration for NIH budgets, and that was a major priority, and the president stuck to it despite the expenses of the war on terrorism.

So in FY 2002, 2003 and 2004, huge increases to the NIH budget were sustained. That was a direct administrative action.

We also have a new Department of Homeland Security with a new science and technology unit, which now has a budget requested for $1.2 billion of basically new science tech money. I know a lot of people in the university science community have disparaged this or discounted it, but the increase in development activity in the Department of Defense is a very significant investment in the engineering infrastructure of the United States. The importance of those technically intensive activities -- whether it's basic science or not -- is it sustains the technical community. It provides jobs for physical scientists and engineers. You can count on having a job if you have a degree in physical science and engineering today because of those investments. You might not be doing astrophysics, but you can get a job working with an aerospace company or a defense contractor.

That's really important, and there's been a 44 percent increase in the total R&D budget in this administration, and that's during a time when inflation wasn't all that great. That's in constant dollars there was a 44 percent increase. That's very impressive and, yes, in certain areas Congress added to the administration's requests. But I want to point out that although it's common practice for OMB (Office of Management and Budget) to line out additions that Congress has made in one year when figuring the budget for the next, they have not done that for the basic science add-ons.

The president has sent many signals that he supports basic science. Whether each budget can deliver as much as the Congress has authorized or not, the president is not dragging his heels. He had a very public signing for the science appropriations bill for the National Science Foundation that authorized very aggressive increases for the future.

We're fighting a war and there's a big deficit, and it's kind of hard to deliver on some of those hopes, but the president isn't throwing cold water on science. I try to draw people's attention to these signals.


Phil Berardelli is UPI's Science & Technology Editor. E-mail

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