Jack Marburger former presidential science advisor dies
Physicist, university president, national lab director and presidential science adviser dies at 70 after a long illness. Newspaper obituaries highlight the contentious technopolitics of his eight years advising President George W. Bush
August 1, 2011Published: August 1, 2011
By Steven T. Corneliussen (updated 3 August 2011)
In similar ways over the weekend, and in some detail, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal reported the death of John H. “Jack” Marburger, who died at home in Port Jefferson, NY, on July 28 from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
All three newspapers—but especially the Post—highlighted the contentious national technopolitics of the era of President George W. Bush, whom Marburger served as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and as science adviser for eight years, longer than any predecessor.
The Post article’s opening sentence cited “strident criticism from his fellow scientists.” The obituary then recalled that “more than 60 top scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, put Marburger on the spot in February 2004 with an open letter charging that the Bush administration had ‘systematically’ distorted or ignored scientific findings that were in conflict with its political or ideological agenda,” and that shortly later, “48 Nobel Prize winners issued a similar letter excoriating the administration for its stances on climate change, stem cells and other scientific matters.” The Post piece next emphasized that Marburger “was ridiculed by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner in the bluntest possible terms.” The obituary writer saw fit to resurrect and quote the bluntest of those terms: prostitute.
Only then did the Post piece devote a few paragraphs to the late Marburger’s side of the story. Next it summarized Marburger’s career, which involved degrees from Princeton and Stanford, the Stony Brook presidency, and the directorship of Brookhaven National Laboratory. The article ended with this return to the topic of Bush-era technopolitics:
While serving as Bush’s science adviser in 2004, Marburger told the New York Times: “No one will know my personal positions on issues as long as I am in this job.”
As far as anyone knows, he never made those views public.
The Times’s obituary did highlight the Bush-era contentiousness, but only after describing Marburger as “a mild-mannered scientist who maintained the respect of most colleagues even as many of them were harshly critical of the Bush White House,” and only after remembering important events in his earlier career:
He was named president of the State University at Stony Brook on Long Island in 1980, at a time when state budget cuts were severely straining the campus. Marburger was credited with returning Stony Brook to a path of modest growth.
When Gov. Mario M. Cuomo appointed him chairman of a fact-finding commission on the contentious issue of the unfinished Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island in 1983, he supervised a group of scientists who arrived at a consensus with which he did not agree. Announcing their findings—that the plant should never open—he told interviewers that he disagreed but added: “The governor didn’t want my opinion. He told me that. The governor wanted to know what the situation was. And I delivered that.”
Marburger took over as director of Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island in 1998, shortly after revelations about leaks of radioactive tritium from a research reactor set off widespread community outrage. He was credited with creating policies that quelled the storm. And on orders from the Energy Department, he eventually presided over the shutdown of the reactor, though he told interviewers at the time that he thought closing it was a mistake.
For its own last word, the Times—like the Post—gave Marburger the last word:
In a 2004 interview with The Times, Dr. Marburger articulated what he saw as the fine line between scientific research and political policy using the example of stem cells. Stem cells, he said, “offer great promise for addressing incurable diseases and afflictions. But I can’t tell you when a fertilized egg becomes sacred. That’s not my job. That’s not a science issue. And so whatever I think about reproductive technology or choice, or whatever, is irrelevant to my job as a science adviser.”
The Wall Street Journal ran a basic wire-service piece.
Science magazine has posted online a Marburger obituary forthrightly engaging the science-politics contentiousness seen during President George W. Bush's adminstration, whom Marburger served for eight years as science adviser. Science offers a generous, respectful but not hagiographic treatment. Here’s the opening paragraph:
Those paying tribute to John Marburger ... say that their respect for the man far overshadows any criticism of his boss. Preserving a reputation for honesty and integrity after 4 decades in academia and government is no mean feat, they point out. And it's even more impressive for someone who led a major research university and a national laboratory before coming to Washington in 2001 to serve in an administration widely regarded as having little use for science.
Later, the article adds:
Bush's science policies were under constant attack from Nobel laureates and major scientific organizations. They accused the Bush administration of reducing funding for research and suppressing and ignoring scientific evidence across many fields, from the human drivers of climate change to the research value of embryonic stem cells. In every case, however, Marburger defended the White House's position. Some of the attacks were simply partisan, he would say, while others—especially the criticism of the president's budget requests to Congress—were willful distortions of the administration's actual record.
The article quotes Sherwood Boehlert, the Republican congressman who served as served as chairman of the House Science committee; William Madia, Stanford University’s vice president for the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and former director of two other Department of Energy national labs; David Goldston, former chief of staff to the House Science committee under Boehlert and now director of government affairs at the National Resources Defense Council in Washington, DC; and Neal Lane, who served as the National Science Foundation director and presidential science adviser for President Clinton. Science reports:
Lane, one of many prominent scientists who signed a 2004 petition lamenting what they saw as the dismal state of science under the Bush administration, says he was always careful to separate the messenger from the message. "We were criticizing the administration, not the science adviser," says Lane. "And while many of us didn't like Jack's response, we understood that he had to respond that way, or resign. ... And while some people would have jumped ship, he stayed and decided to do the best job that he could. And I think he was right to do so. I've been a champion of Jack all along."
Science also highlights what it says might become “Marburger's most lasting legacy,” his service “as midwife to an emerging field known as the science of science policy.”
...When asked if the federal government should double the budgets of basic research agencies such as NSF, for example, Marburger would insist that any boost in spending should be preceded by a clear description of the goals to be achieved and evidence that additional funding is likely to accomplish those goals. NSF now runs a grants program aimed at answering those questions, as well as leading an interagency effort to collect and analyze the impact of federal spending on scientific innovation.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. His reports to AIP are published in "Science and the media." He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.