Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 25  |  Friday, May 10, 2002  |  Number 8
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Theory vs. Practice
Marburger sees need for scientific methods in evaluating science

by Mike Perricone

John Marburger, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy

WASHINGTON, D.C.-A physicist taking on a national policy role faces an inevitable and inescapable question from colleagues in the sciences: What about the issue of static-todeclining funding for physics research?

John Marburger-physicist, former director of Brookhaven National Laboratory, and, as Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, chief science advisor to the President of the United States-took on the question as the keynote speaker for the 27th annual Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The question of physics funding, Marburger said, raises questions of its own.

"I don't believe anyone questions the need for more funding," Marburger said. "I don't think anyone is not alarmed. But what's missing is a link to some discriminating factor. Where do we apply the money? Does it go into existing programs? Do we put it into one agency versus another agency? Do we increase the National Science Foundation budget? How do we handle the relationship of NSF and Department of Energy science?

"This is frustrating," he continued. "It's easier for the life sciences. It's easy to lobby on questions of disease and cure. But the rest of the balance [in research funding] is not so simple. We need to give advice to the government, to provide a little more of a handle on how to do it and where to go. The American public is skeptical after the end of the Cold War. The national security hook is not there any more."

Marburger was confirmed as OSTP director in October 2001, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. As a physicist, he appreciates the historical link between national defense and the physical sciences growing from the Manhattan Project in World War II. He also appreciates that the link has now been abridged by two dramatic world changes-the end of the Cold War and the rise of terrorism-as evidenced by the title of the colloquium held April 11-12: "Science and Technology in a Vulnerable World: Rethinking Our Roles." As a scientist and policy maker, he's in the middle of the conflict.

"A good solution is to add a lot more money to everything-in theory," he said. "In practice, there is only a limited amount of money. The war against terrorism is expensive. We're in a different economic climate than we expected."

Marburger said the concept of "balance" in the research funding portfolio was "misleading, and maybe even dangerous," implying a balance among all the different areas of science-for example, doubling funding in other areas apace with doubling funding for the National Institutes of Health by FY03.

"The presidential priorities state that research in the life sciences merits a substantial increase," he said. "Other priorities have not drawn as much funding, but other priorities will emerge over the course of the Administration. Congress appropriates the money, and Congress has to share in the vision."

Constructing a vision is the challenge to a policy maker. Marburger the scientist sees the need for a rational and methodical process. "We cannot fund all the sciences, all the time, to the full extend that we'd like," he said. "Choices need to be made. We need to advise the government on how to evaluate and make those choices wisely, and not leave them to random decisions of the public finance process."

To Marburger, the war against terrorism does not loom as a significant driver of science, because terrorist targets are not limited to facilities controlled by the federal government. He refers to basic and applied science as "discovery" and "issue" science, respectively. He does not see the "spinoff" argument as a solid basis for science policy, believing that science itself has intrinsic needs, and resources devoted to solving a social issue (for example, terrorism) will benefit only those areas of science directly related to that issue.

Marburger sees a key question as how to evaluate basic science. For example, is there a rational way to establish an end date for an experiment? Can the peer review process be made more explicit, and applied across scientific fields? And he would like to put the tools of social science to work in a methodical evaluation of the basic sciences; he believes private industry "seems to have a more academic approach to management" than does the academic sector.

"We have an unprecedented ability to control matter, both organic and inorganic," Marburger said. "The process of delivering funding to programs is very complicated. We need language to form the framework for discussion, not just doubling here and doubling there. I prefer this language to be more science-based for the advice that drives the funding."

On the web:
Office of Science and Technology Policy:
American Association for the Advancement of Science

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