George "Jay" Keyworth never fit the traditional mold of the modern presidential science adviser. Except for his background as a physicist, the young, straight-talking conservative who served President Ronald Reagan was a far cry from the seasoned, blend-into-the-background men (there's never been a woman in the job) who held the portfolio for Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
This week, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) invited four past and present presidential science advisers to explore the challenges of communicating science to their bosses, peers, politicians, and the public. The 2-day symposium was the first public event held in the renovated National Academies’ headquarters across from the National Mall in downtown Washington, D.C.
But Keyworth wasn't on stage. Instead, the panel consisted of only Democrats—current occupant John Holdren, Frank Press (who served President Carter), and John Gibbons and Neal Lane (who both served President Clinton). And while the 90-minute conversation had its moments, one might wonder if Keyworth's absence was related to his politics.
NAS President Ralph Cicerone insists that ideology played no role in choosing members of the panel, which he moderated. "We would have loved to have had Jack participate," says Cicerone, referring to the late John Marburger, science adviser to President George W. Bush, who died last summer. But when pressed to explain why the academy didn’t aim for a more bipartisan tone by reaching back to Keyworth and the Reagan Administration (President George H. W. Bush’s science adviser, D. Allan Bromley, died in 2005) Cicerone demurred.
"We didn't want to go back that far," he said. When it was noted that Frank Press served under Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, Cicerone replied that "well, he was in town." There apparently was no age ceiling, however. Press is 87, Gibbons is 83, and Lane is 73. By comparison, Keyworth is a relatively spry 72. (Holdren, the incumbent, is 68.)
So what would Keyworth, now retired and living in northern California, have said about his 4 years at the White House? His tenure included bitter fights with the scientific community over the technology behind Reagan’s anti-ballistic missile Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), on the one hand. Yet he also sold Reagan on backing what would have been the country's most expensive scientific facility, the proton-bashing Superconducting Supercollider in Texas (a project Congress killed in 1993).
Keyworth thinks that the biggest issue that he faced was the trend toward more applied research and what he believes is the federal government’s neglect of basic research. He blames the shift on what he calls the scientific community's growing infatuation with large, multidisciplinary research projects, and he says he's partly to blame for not doing more to resist that pressure.
"The first speech I gave [as science adviser] was at the National Academy, where I said that the ball of technology had a massive amount of momentum and the ball of basic science is fragile and can be easily crushed," Keyworth recalls. "And I take some of the responsibility because I didn’t realize the downside [of addressing applied problems], which was that it has diverted many scientists from pursuing more important, basic challenges. The community is not impervious to going where the money is, after all."
It's clear that Keyworth hasn’t stopped thinking about the big science policy issues of the day. He's revising a first draft of a book "on SDI, Reagan, and [Edward] Teller. I finished it once, but now I’m giving it another shot." And it's a good bet that he would have spiced up the conversation among presidential science advisers.
"I wouldn’t have enjoyed the travel," he confesses. "But I would have enjoyed participating in the discussion. And, no, I was most certainly not invited."