With Advisors Like These, Who Needs Policy?

A few years ago, the after-dinner speaker at the DAMOP conference banquet was Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger. As I wrote at the time, I think it's safe to say that he didn't make a positive impression on the audience. It also sparked a rather lively discussion afterwards, that some people speculated was the reason for the veiled threats we got the next year.

The Corporate Masters have just published an exclusive post-election interview with Marburger. I read it with some interest, mostly to see if it would change my impression of him.

I have to say, it didn't. Not only does he spout the usual hack-tastic disingenuous line about the funding of stem cell research and other projects, there's this wonderful exchange:

Seed: Did you see President Bush ever change his mind based on the scientific evidence that you presented him?

JM: As far as I can tell, the president, as a matter of principle, doesn't think it's wise to defy nature. By the time I've arranged a presentation about something for the president, all science questions have been resolved. And he expects it. He would probably fire me if I permitted a science question to leak into his briefings. I'm there to make sure that his advisors and his agencies have consulted with the science community, and that all the science issues have been taken care of before anything gets to him.

That's spectacular. It really lifts my spirits to know that we've been led for the last eight years by a man who would fire his science advisor if he were to be forced to confront a science question. And the idea that that advisor would happily go along with that... Just... wow.

Words cannot express how happy I will be a week from now, when we put actual adults back in charge of the government.

More like this

What? I love the blog and the insights both science and otherwise are great but i have to say this entry is way off base. Why do we want a science questions still on the table when presented to the President unless the president is a scientist. Do we want him to weigh in on it? Do we want the Presidents scientific opinion... Come on. Take this analogy to the business world. Sure in a tech company the CEO my really understand a subject but there is no way you go to a CEO of major company with a "technology" question still on the table. That is what a CIO or other leader is for. The CEO expects the CIO to bring the technology answer the CFO to bring the finance implications, the VP HR to bring the people impacts, etc...

Now if what you are really talking about is the President changing his POLICY or POLITICAL position based on the scientific position presented we are talking a different issue. What Marburger was saying was the President does not want his briefing to be where the science is debated.

This is absolutely no different than the President not wanting a couple of military advisors debating which weapons system will better accomplish the mission...

Actual adults are in charge of the government by managing this way... whether their decisions and policies are adult is a very different question.

I personally don't want the President in every briefing with debates. I want him picking respected experts to provide him the input on the item with all sides of the issue.

It would actually be a fine thing if all the science questions were answered before anyone talked to the President. Of course, it's impossible to do that and only someone entirely ignorant of science would expect it.

It would be lovely if all scientific questions were settled before they got to the President, but if it were possible to have all scientific questions settled before they got to the President, then there would be no need for a presidential science advisor in the first place. The whole point of the position is that the President will need to make decisions about issues of science before the full story is in, and will need quality advice in order to make those decisions.

And for that matter, there will be times when the CEO of Global Conglomerate Inc. will have to make some decision about technology before all of the questions about said technology are answered. The CIO can and should bring advice on the subject, but it's ultimately the CEO's call. That's why they pay him the big bucks. With regard to science advice to the President, it's even more so.

Besides, if all of the relevant scientific questions were settled before things got to the level of a Presidential briefing, there wouldn't be any need for scientists, would there?

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 15 Jan 2009 #permalink

Exactly but that is exactly what Marburger was saying except he made is clear the President does not want the science debate in the briefing. Folks are taking the line "all the science questions have been resolved" way to literally. What is meant by this is that the folks assigned to analyze and assess them have reached a position which drives the advisory briefing to the President.

As I mentioned this is no different than say the military or finance. Are all the questions resolved about what the military capabilities of enemy x are? Are all the questions resolved about will operation Y using strategy Z? Are all the questions about the economic impact of an event resolved? No but the President expects the military, financial and science advisers to have run these questions through and give him a clear brief with a suggested course of action for decision not a debate.

The key point is your statement " the President will need to make decisions about issues of science". No he doesn't. Bases on what you quoted he wants the scientists to tell him the scientific view (role of the advisers) and then he with other advisers makes decisions on the issues about policy, politics, economics, principles, etc. which are impacted by the science.

As a possible example he will probably not want to hear if it is unclear if the water found on Mars could have supported life (now or in the past) with the existing salt content... he will want to hear a recommendation about the science, the cost, the other missions competing for resources, the potential positive impact of the mission, etc.. The "issue of the science" is not the "issue".

This is not about NOT confronting the science issues it is about the scientists confronting them and reaching conclusion on them BEFORE they get to the oval office.

p.s. given the above however if what is really exercising folks is that a scientific fact/finding/etc. does not change the President's position, policy, belief then it really is not a science issue to begin with. Not that they shouldn't be, but policies, principles, beliefs, and least of all politics themselves are not always aligned with scientific "facts". Not sure we are clear which question we want the "adviser" dealing with, the science or the outcome/impact of the science on the list above...very very different questions and expectations.

No but the President expects the military, financial and science advisers to have run these questions through and give him a clear brief with a suggested course of action for decision not a debate.

So there is no need for footnotes in Presidential briefings?

We have just been through eight years with a President who insisted on a clear brief on every issue that came before him, and was sufficiently oblivious not to ask the question "How well do we know what we think we know?" So the people who met with him directly would always strip every caveat out of every briefing. So, for instance, the people who in 2002 correctly said, Maybe Saddam doesn't have WMDs, were systematically shut out of the process as the NIE that originally had footnotes and caveats to that effect was reduced to a document that said, Saddam definitely has WMDs and we need to take him down as soon as we can logistically get our military into Baghdad. Would Bush have ordered the invasion if he knew of the doubts? We'll never know, but he should have had a chance to ask.

In the ideal world where the President could wait until all information was in hand to act, it would make sense to do it this way. In the real world where decisions have to be made in real time based on imperfect information, this method leaves you vulnerable to confirmation bias and advisor bias. The decision whether to go to war must be made by the President (you are, however, correct to say that he and his advisors should leave tactics to the military). Likewise, we don't know yet just how bad a problem global warming will be, but we know that the chance of a disastrous outcome is high enough that we should act to prevent it even though it will be expensive to do so (again, expecting the President to read the original sources is asking too much). But in both cases, the advisor should provide not only a recommended course of action but, wherever possible, alternative courses of action and the risks involved with each. This is especially important in democratic/republican governments where the leader can and will be grilled by the opposition should the policy fail, but even in the corporate world or a dictatorship the smart, non-kleptocratic leader should know the alternatives in case he ever does have to respond to critics.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 15 Jan 2009 #permalink

Uh, jj, if there is no debate, then why would there be a decision for the president to make? If all debate had occurred among his advisors before the presidential briefing and all the conclusions had been drawn, then the only point of the briefing would be to get a rubber stamp on the decision that had already been made. Otherwise, without a knowledge of the debate parameters, it would not be possible for the President to make an informed decision, or to turn down the given proposal.

If I were the President and the question before me was, "Do we fund weapons system A or weapons system B", I would absolutely want "military advisors debating which weapons system will better accomplish the mission", or at the very least I would want a single briefer to explain both sides of the issue, and why one side was favored over the other on military grounds (maybe even that the briefer disagreed with the consensus). Similarly, if the question before me was, "Do we fund this NOAA project or not", I would absolutely want my Science Advisor to honestly present both sides of the scientific issue. Then, taking those scientific issues into consideration, along with the political and financial issues, an informed decision could be made.

Let's say there are only two parameters to a particular Presidential decision between "A" and "B": the scientific content of "A" and "B", and the political content of "A" and "B". The President must decide "A" or "B". If he is only told, "The scientific consensus is for 'A'", then the only decision he can make is on the political content of "A" and "B". Choosing "A" would be "pro-science". Right? Would choosing "B" then be "anti-science"? Unless he is given more information, it is impossible for him to know, based solely on the briefing content. He is left with making a decision solely on the political content of "A" and "B".

I agree that most decisions have to be made below the level of the Oval Office. The President simply doesn't have time to give a thumbs up or down on every decision of the Executive Branch. But to say that all scientific debate must be excluded from briefings for those choices where the President must make a decision, is ludicrous.

Eric agree but that was not what provoked my first comment. You are always at risk for bias in the decision process but again this is no different than any leadership area where different forces are at play and seek to influence the outcome by the information available for the leader making the decision.

I want to reinforce that what started my comment was the need to be clear expectations on what he role of the advisor is and the role as created by the President (vs what some want it to be). I don't want the President deciding the science, military, or financial position (the person with probably the least expertise having the final say..I do want him well informed)what I want the President doing is balancing the overall decision with the significant influences for the country, etc... and then taking responsibility for the decision. One President (or other leaders) may want more of the debate visible, another may want simply the advice with the risks.

I am trying to isolate that a leader has chosen a course of letting the scientists make the "science" decision/recommendation to them, As well as clarify that this position is not somehow unique or un-adult (it is simply one of many leadership styles which vary by leader be they President, CEO, etc.)

I should also point out that most people here certainly want decisions made on sound science principles(objective, research, logic, etc.) which I assume is the underlying theme here. However, when making that position firmly it seems a bit incongruous to then be completely subjective about the outcome.(the fact is the President - and team - being over 18 and duly elected under the laws of the US is an actual adult).

Hi Prof. Orzel

Doesn't this defeat the whole purpose of that "science a d v i s o r " thing.
I am truly amazed that there are people out there saying such things in official interviews!

just my $0.02