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Having the President’s Ear

A look back at a time when science held sway.
August 18, 2008

In January 1974, TR published remarks made on October 4, 1973, when MIT convened the six scientists who’d chaired the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) to discuss the subject of “Science Advice for the White House.” It was a remembrance service of sorts, as President Nixon had recently abolished the committee. What role, if any, a science advisor would have in future administrations was an open question.

What a difference 16 years had made. On another October 4, this one in 1957, the Soviet Union had, with the launch of Sputnik, gotten the jump in the space race; Americans demanded to know how the president planned to catch up. ­Eisenhower quickly established PSAC, with James R. Killian, then the president of MIT, at its head. The president explained that the move would “make it possible for me, personally, whenever there appears to be any unnecessary delay in our development system, to act promptly and decisively.”

Killian and the 18 scientists he recruited to form PSAC found an ideal patron in Eisenhower, and the committee played a key role in developing national-security strategy, establishing NASA, and reforming the national science curriculum. But the relationship between the president and his science advisors (Eisenhower referred to them as “my scientists”) went deeper than any particular policy discussions, Killian recalled:

The importance of PSAC goes far beyond the specific outcomes of its studies and recommendations because of the relationships of confidence and free discussion that PSAC enjoyed with the President and the President’s associates. … These meetings, in which there was free-for-all discussion, were memorable events for PSAC itself. They made it possible for a group of scientists to come to understand the President’s problems, views, and goals, and to learn how to make themselves useful in the light of this understanding. So it was that the Committee found many ways to express its belief in the values of a free society not only for the advancement of science but for the good of mankind.

Later presidents would prove less responsive to a committee whose recommendations were sometimes at odds with administration policy. President ­Kennedy embraced the advisory system he inherited from Eisenhower, but conflict between the Johnson administration and PSAC over such issues as the antiballistic­-­missile program, supersonic transport, and the conduct of the Vietnam War caused the committee’s influence to wane. Donald F. Hornig, science advisor during this period, explained:

There is nothing sadder than an adviser whose advice isn’t wanted. During World War II and at the time of Sputnik, there was a clear identity of interest between the scientific community and the President. The President knew he needed advice, and the country knew he needed advice; and under Killian a heroic role was played. As time went on, quite aside from the building up of scientific expertise in the Department of Defense, attentions turned to other things; the most urgent political items were no longer quite so closely allied with the things PSAC was interested in. And in fighting its own personal battles, PSAC came to be regarded, rightly or wrongly, as having its own political positions.

Goodwill eroded to the point that Nixon felt the committee could best serve his interests by ceasing to exist. A science advisory committee, in modified form, was restored under President Ford, and every president since has at least given the appearance of having expert scientific advice at his command, but the influence PSAC wielded at its height has never been equaled. It was a unique set of historical circumstances that established the “identity of interest” Hornig described. And it was also a special collection of people, Killian recalled, who were able to serve two such demanding masters–­science and the president–simultaneously:

This group of science advisers had a deep sense of responsibility to science, along with an unshakable faith in its importance both to the individual and to the nation. They loved science and wanted others to share their enthusiasm for it and to discover its inner power to make men and women a little more creative, a little more civilized, and a little more humane.

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