The barons of research are grumbling about Jimmy Carter's refusal to equip himself with a council of scientific wise men.
A self-serving plea? Well, at least presumptuous, given that presidents are not receptive to unsolicited prescriptions for organizing their official households. But with that understood, it should be seen that what is really involved is the question of whether it is possible to institutionalize an antidote to the siege mentality that seems to settle on each modern presidency.
The case for attempting to do so is contained in a new book, "Science Advice to the President" (Pergamon Press), which focuses on Carter's decision to retain science advice at the White House, but to pare the elaborate advisory setup bequeathed to him by Congress and the Ford administration.
Carter is ably served by a full-time science adviser, Frank Press, who heads the Office of Science and Technology Policy. And, while so much else is tottering around him, the president is widely acknowledged to have attended quite well to the care and feeding of science and technology, both ceremonially and in extra budget helpings for many fields of research.
What, then, is the basis for complaint, voiced in this volume by past and present performers in the upper ranks of science and government, including most of the former White House science advisers?
What they are doing is looking back, with a mixture of reverence and nostalgia, to the 15-year period when a parttime, independent council of scientific wise men was attached to the White House. The President's Science Advisory Committee was a Sputnik-induced, Eisenhower innovation. Little known, and not much mourned when Richard Nixon abruptly banished science advice from the White House in 1973, PSAC was a unique and sometimes highly influential body in major government affairs.
Though probably not as decisive in affecting events as some of its alumni think, the committee often did measure up to the C. P. Snow vision of scientists serving their political masters by looking over the horizon for faraway pitfalls and possibilities. Under Eisenhower and Kennedy, the committee became the rallying place for a nuclear test ban; it fought sensibly, though not always effectively, against many crackpot weapon schemes, and it played important roles in getting the federal establishment moving on birth control research, various enviromental programs and the modernization of science teaching.
The ability to take on these issues, it is now argued, stemmed from the committee's shrewdly designed placement on the federal landscape. The 18 or so members were mainly highly successful senior scientists or engineers, rewardingly employed in academe or industry, and therefore presumed to be above Washington's bureaucratic "turf" struggles. Closely linked to the full-time presidential science adviser and his staff of specialists, and with authority to set up special study groups and summon data from throughout the government, the committee was designed to merge qualities that are usually mutually exclusive in government: detachment and inside knowledge.
Nixon quickly sensed this, especially when the science advisory apparatus, with its tradition of supporting strategic arms control, took up against the antiballistic missile and compounded the sin of in-house disloyalty by bad-mouthing the supersonic transport. Nixon then threw them all out of the White House. Though science advice got a statutory resurrection under Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter chose to employ a science adviser but to do without a council of scientific wise men.
In defense of the president's choice, Press argues that times have changed since 18 specialists commuted to Washington to help Dwight Eisenhower respond to Sputnik. The range of science-related problems is now so diverse, Press says, that the best approach is to summon help according to the need.
In the tight-knit circle of science advice at the presidential level, there's no dispute with Press' view of the new complexities involved in the mesh of politics and science and technology. Where his colleagues part with him, though, is on the question of whether wise but unpopular insights can penetrate a highly disciplined White House staff organization.
Edward E. David Jr., who headed and then quit the Nixon administration's science office, states in the book that, under Carter, "the trend is toward an insular situation. Since the reestablishment of the White House Science Office, it has assumed an inward look in conformance with the attitudes of the White House staff generally."
Not just on research matters, but across the board, Carter conceded as much last year when he holed up at Camp David and summoned scores of specialists and plain citizens to talk to him. What he was doing then, but since has stopped, was making up for the absence of tolerated mavericks on the White House premises.