Presidential Science Adviser

February 19, 1986

John Tirman's biased view (Opinion, Feb. 9) of the presidential science adviser's office is more interesting for what it leaves out than for what it says. He indicts George Keyworth, the departed adviser, for strongly supporting the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and for "not voicing top scientists' pervasive doubts."

Tirman apparently thinks President Reagan only gets advice from Keyworth. Actually, unlike most presidents, Reagan often goes to outside, informal bodies for advice. One such, the Citizen's Advisory Council on Space Policy, advocated increased attention to ballistic missile defense well before the President's 1983 speech--and weighed the negatives, too.

Tirman says the science adviser should be a counter to the advice of vested interests like the Pentagon. I agree. The Citizen's Council is one such unvested body. But Tirman's Union of Concerned Scientists has a solid investment in certain areas of research, and has for some time been visibly miffed that its opinions are not greeted with the appropriate hushed reverence in the science adviser's office.

Tirman deplores Keyworth's "harsh attacks" on the anti-SDI activists, but neglects to mention that Union of Concerned Scientists has authored sloppy, biased technical assessments of SDI and is easily as harsh as Keyworth.

Surely even the union--which represents a tiny fraction of American scientists--cannot expect a President to appoint an adviser who is already opposed to that President's major science policy initiative. Rather than calling for such naive goals, this group should try to improve the present low level of debate over SDI.

Norman Cousins's piece in the same day's Times underlines how little open-minded thought is going on. Surely the speed of ICBMs endangers us all--but Cousins never notices that a simple, cheap defense against ICBMs could stop many of the nightmarish scenarios he envisions. Particularly, a third-party malicious triggering of a superpower exchange could not work if a limited SDI had only to engage a few missiles. Accidents, too, could be defused.

Far more important than a strictly impartial science adviser is a cool and intellectually honest debate among the partisans of the scientific community. I would like to see Tirman join this effort.


Laguna Beach

Benford is professor of physics at UC Irvine and a member of the Citizen's Advisory Council on Space Policy.

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