Acting science adviser quits; some lament post's lost influence
Washington — The second resignation of a White House science adviser in five months comes at a time of heightened concern among scientists that the post's stature has declined significantly. As President Reagan searches for a permanent replacement for John P. McTague, who resigned Friday, the outgoing acting adviser suggests that his successor get a promise of an open line of communication with the President before accepting the position.
``The linkage with the West Wing is not good,'' said Dr. McTague in a Monitor interview. ``But we have been working well with other staff offices like the Office of Management and Budget and the National Security Council.''
McTague has been the acting science adviser and acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy since Jan. 1, following the resignation in December of George A. Keyworth II. As the top administration science official, McTague headed an office of 35 people. He left to become executive director of research at Ford Motor Company, starting today.
Cut off from direct communication with the science adviser's office, and with the post's budget cut almost 30 percent for next year, the White House is not getting adequate, objective science advice, critics say.
``Science rarely travels into the Oval Office these days under its own flag. Most of the time science gets there because it is embodied in some other very large policy question, such as defense policy, space policy, fiscal policy, energy policy, and so on,'' says William Carey, executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Members of the scientific community familiar with the politics of science remember the days when the science adviser had more influence.
The position was first established by President Truman as a subunit of the now-defunct White House Office of Defense Mobilization.
But it was not until the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space that the position jumped to the top echelons of the White House organization. The post was set up to provide the President with the necessary information to prevent another Sputnik-like surprise.
After President Nixon abolished the position, President Ford reestablished it, although some scientists say it has never regained the degree of influence it held in the earlier days.
``The President needs to be able to get a second opinion and not just accept the recommendations of the bureaucrats or the industries out there waiting to catch the money,'' the AAAS's Carey says.
The White House has been searching for a full-time science adviser since Dr. Keyworth resigned, but none of the scientists approached have accepted.
McTague, who denies that he is leaving because he has been passed over for the permanent position, offered some advice for his successor: ``Establish a good rapport with the West Wing and get an agreement up front on a systematic means of communication with the Oval Office. There needs to be a day-to-day close relationship if the science adviser is to be able to regularly weigh in on major issues. The effectiveness of this office depends on personal relations and attitudes, staff relations, and personal rapport.''
Critics say the proposed budget cut for the office is one more indicator of declining clout within the White House.
McTague disagrees, saying that ``several offices are taking cuts as a result of Gramm-Rudman. It will, however, drastically reduce the ability of the office to bring in top-flight policy people. That kind of flexibility has vanished.''
Mr. Nixon abolished the office of science adviser and the Science Advisory Committee, a sister organization that brought in outside experts, when several committee members opposed his support for a supersonic transport and the development of antiballistic-missile defenses.
Differences in views still exist. ``The West Wing reacts to short-term crises, that's just the way they are forced to operate. We think in a long-term, strategic manner, so it is often difficult for the two offices to communicate,'' McTague says.
Most observers agree that the continued prestige of the position will be determined by the stature of the next White House appointee, and his or her relationship with the President and chief of staff Donald T. Regan.
Richard G. Johnson, formerly assistant director of the office, has been promoted to acting science adviser and acting director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. McTague: US science in era of `unsurpassed creativity'
The following are excerpts from a Monitor interview with John P. McTague, former acting science adviser to President Reagan. He resigned on May 23. What is your opinion on the health of American science?
This country is at an era of absolutely unsurpassed creativity in . . . every field of science. There isn't a field of science now which doesn't have an aura of being in an absolute rennaissance. It's incredible. Even fields which should have died 50 years ago. President Reagan listed three goals for the support of science: enhanced national security, improved quality of life, and increased industrial competitiveness. Are these in order of priority?
No, they are not things that can be ordered. It's clear that the prime responsibility of government is the maintenance of security.
In many instances you get multiple payoff from the same activities. Historically, if you take a look at the impact of R&D investments in national security, they have had enormous impact on our economic competitiveness. The whole field of commercial jet aircraft is one where we lead the world and is the major manufacturing export industry for the US. Has there been a shift in science policy from previous administrations?
We have deliberately decreased funding in the areas close to commercialization with the viewpoint that that is much more efficiently done by the private sector.
On the other hand, we have emphasized the unique federal role in supporting fundamental basic research that is of such long-range nature and such distributed impact that one cannot expect the private sector to make a major role in it. How can federal funding of basic science be justified when the payoff is long-term and unpredictable?
The individual implications are certainly uncertain. . . . The majority of it is done in the universities, where new scientists and engineers are trained throughout the research process and end up out into industry as they graduate. It is not an accident that we are at the leading edge of almost every technology. It is because we have made the investment in the new knowledge. . . . Without the new knowledge you can't be at the edge of new technology.