BOSTON--Although billed as a celebration, the largest gathering of U.S. presidential science advisers had more the air of a wake. Meeting here last week to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the former officials were all too aware that a new Administration is busy making critical decisions without the kind of scientific advice that has guided most presidents in the past half-century.
Some advisers and senior scientists see the empty office in the Old Executive Office Building as an ominous sign that the White House prefers not to hear advice that may conflict with its ideological goals. "It's clear that science policy is not one of the Administration's priorities," says William Golden, who advised President Harry Truman. But Administration officials insist the delay is due to the delayed transition following the contested election and onerous paperwork requirements.
The former advisers ticked off several recent actions by the new president that they feel could have benefited from input from a science adviser. They include the decision to withdraw from the Kyoto greenhouse gas talks, proposed cuts in spending on energy R&D, reversal of proposed water-quality standards, and move ahead with a new missile defense system. Decisions on stem cell research and oil drilling in the Arctic are looming. "These are all issues with a strong R&D component," says engineer Chuck Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which hosted the 1 May event. "But I don't know with whom they are consulting."
Although he declined comment, Vest is believed to be one of several persons approached for the science advising job who have turned down the position. And the post may become less appealing with every passing day. As the Administration continues to make decisions without formal scientific advice, a nominee is likely to face detailed questions at a Senate confirmation hearing about the candidate's stance on global warming, stem cell research, missile defense, and other controversial topics, notes Allan Bromley, who advised George H. W. Bush. Proposed tight budgets for all research agencies except the National Institutes of Health make the job even less attractive.