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President's Science Adviser: Loyal to a Fault?

February 09, 1986|John Tirman | John Tirman is the senior editor at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a public - policy organization based in Cambridge, Mass

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Any day now, President Reagan will nominate a new science adviser to replace George A. Keyworth, the physicist who left the post last month after five controversial years to join a private consulting firm. The job awaits not only a successor, but perhaps a rediscovery of mission; for Keyworth reshaped this pivotal role in ways that deeply troubled a large segment of the scientific community.

As an unabashed loyalist, Keyworth touted presidential policy even if it contradicted the prevailing judgment of the scientific community. For those who look to the science adviser for technical acumen and independence, Keyworth's loyalty seemed extreme because it insulated the President from top-quality scientific advice. Now many fear that Reagan will choose another loyalist who will tell him what he wants to hear, rather than what may be unwanted but sound technical assessment.

The position was first created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the wake of the Soviet's Sputnik triumph in 1957. The resulting atmosphere of urgency drove Eisenhower to bring scientific advice right into the Oval Office with James R. Killian, the respected president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as science adviser, and with a panel of experts appointed to the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). This process was an immediate success. During the 1950s and '60s, major contributions were made in improving military reconnaissance, research and development, environmental protection and other areas. But the clout of science in the White House declined during Lyndon B. Johnson's tenure and hit bottom under Richard M. Nixon, who abolished the advisory apparatus in 1973 after members of PSAC publicly opposed his plans for the supersonic transport plane and an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system.

The science adviser post was resurrected in 1976 (though PSAC was not), with Congress hoping to restore, in the words of the legislation, "independent, expert judgment and assistance on policy matters." It was not a "political" job in the way other White House positions are expected to be; rather, it was to provide a ready, objective analyst. As Richard L. Garwin, an IBM physicist who served twice on PSAC, has explained, "a properly chosen technical person can see opportunities and dangers to which non-technical people are simply blind."

The matter of loyalty, however, was always vexing. Killian believed that "Ike's scientists" should advise honestly and freely, but refrain from public revolt against White House decisions. Killian's attitude upon taking the job was that "I would owe loyalty to presidential policies; if I could not support presidential policies, I should resign." Later, there was more grumbling when policy and science were at odds. Lee A. DuBridge, for example, Nixon's first science adviser, broke openly with his boss over the ABM proposal.

Much as in Nixon's years, the Reagan White House has not been receptive to scientific counsel. Joseph G. Morone, who served one year on Keyworth's staff, told a seminar in Los Angeles last June that "the scientific community matters not a whit to the White House. At best, it is viewed as a political nonentity; at worst, as a group that opposes the President on most important issues."

Given such limitations, some observers give Keyworth passing grades. "On the issue of secrecy, Keyworth has been on the side of the angels," says Robert Park, who heads the public-policy office of the American Physical Society. "That comes from his mentor, Edward Teller, who has always believed that military secrecy is harmful to science. Keyworth has been a spokesman for openness." And openness is a stance important to scientists who worry about overly stringent Pentagon rules that might prevent publication of their unclassified work. Keyworth also helped to protect funding for basic research, although federal work has shifted dramatically toward military uses since 1980.

What irked many scientists, however, was Keyworth's bending to the strong political winds in the presidency. Critics cite two prominent issues to illustrate Keyworth's failure to uphold the best traditions of the office: "Star Wars," or the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and acid rain.

Some members of a panel convened by Keyworth's Office of Science and Technology Policy to study space-based defense several months before the President's March, 1983, speech maintain that Keyworth turned 180 degrees, becoming SDI's vociferous booster. Many scientists say he failed to temper Reagan's infatuation with SDI by not voicing top scientists' pervasive doubts about "Star Wars."

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