When he was nominated as President George W. Bush’s chief science advisor, he was described as a mild-mannered mediator and public explainer of science. But John H. Marburger, who died on Thursday aged 70, will be remembered as the man who staunchly defended Bush’s policies in the face of angry criticism from researchers.
A physicist with a background in lasers and non-linear optics, Marburger was president of Stony Brook University in New York from 1980 to 1994, then became director of Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1997. He had to turn the lab around after a radioactive leak angered locals and environmentalists, and won praise for using a combination of patience and openness to gain trust and get the facility running smoothly again (see “Leading a laboratory out of the mire”).
In 2001, Bush nominated Marburger as his chief science advisor, and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (see “Physicist nominated as science advisor for US administration”). Marburger told Nature at the time that he saw his role as “a broker between the scientific community and the administration”, cautioning that “science is not the only driver for policy”.
Bush was slow to confirm the position, but finally got round to it in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. By the time Marburger took up his position in Washington in October, amid a spate of anthrax attacks, the “war on terror” was well underway (see “Anti-terrorist agendas”).
He hit the ground running, setting priorities for dealing with the deluge of terror-related research proposals submitted to the White House from various agencies, and considering how to assess methods for improving anthrax detection and security. But there were concerns that he would struggle for influence. Marburger was a registered Democrat with few contacts in the administration, and he was not given the title of “special assistant” to the President that previous science advisors had enjoyed (see “Bush advisor vows to find science its voice”).
Marburger also did not have direct access to the President on his priority, bioterrorism. His advice was channelled through the newly-created Office of Homeland Security (see “Homeland security plan sparks fears for fight against bioterror”).
In the following years, concerns over security dominated all areas of science policy. Marburger appeared to take scientists’ concerns seriously when tighter immigration rules caused broad increases in visa delays and refusals for students and postdocs seeking entry into the US (see “Access is delayed”). And biologists appreciated the plan that Marburger helped to draw up for dealing with dual-use research that might aid terrorists aiming to make biological weapons – it was a flexible approach that allowed them to police themselves, rather than involving draconian restrictions (see “Terror watchdog set up for ‘dual use’ biology”).
But many researchers weren’t impressed when Marburger defended government policies that they saw as anti-science, such as withdrawing support for the Kyoto Protocol, restricting the use of human embryonic stem cells in research, and pressing ahead with missile defence systems that top US physicists said wouldn’t work.
In 2003 and 2004, Marburger was criticised in a series of statements and reports which claimed that the Bush administration was misrepresenting and suppressing scientific knowledge to further its political ideals. For example, in February 2004, nearly two dozen Nobel laureates and 40 other leading researchers signed an angry statement, coordinated by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which accused White House officials of stacking scientific committees, censoring scientific results and dissolving advisory panels (see “Scientists slam Bush record”).
Marburger’s mediation skills appeared to be lacking when he responded by saying that the letter was the result of a few individuals having their “feathers ruffled” (see “Concern is more than just ‘ruffled feathers’”) and his detailed rebuttal in April 2004 failed to satisfy his critics (see “Bush administration dismisses allegations of scientific bias”). The debate over political bias continued into Bush’s second term (see “US scientists fight political meddling”).
In 2007, Marburger discussed the future of the shuttle programme with NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe (see “Where 24 men have gone before”). O’Keefe wanted to keep the shuttle flying until it was ready to go to the Moon, while Marburger wanted to focus on more pragmatic robotic missions. The compromise they reached resulted in the end of the programme, with the last shuttle mission touching down last month.
When Bush left office, Marburger returned to research at Stony Brook. He had served as the president’s science advisor for eight years, the longest of anyone in that position.