John H. Gibbons, a physicist who was the chief White House science adviser to President Bill Clinton and who was a leading authority on using science to conserve energy, died July 17 at a retirement facility in Crozet, Va. He was 86.
He had complications from a stroke, his wife, Mary Ann Gibbons, said.
Dr. Gibbons, who was known as Jack, was a scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee before coming to Washington in 1973 as the first director of the Federal Office of Energy Conservation. Balancing science and public policy for much of his career, he later became director of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment before joining the Clinton administration in 1993.
At the White House, Dr. Gibbons held the titles of director of the White House Office of Science and Technology and assistant to the president for science and technology. He was a member of the National Security Council, Domestic Policy Council and National Economic Council. He worked with Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and other top officials to coordinate government-wide science and technology policies.
“A compelling argument could be made that my primary role is to illuminate the issues that matter and to build a network to support them,” Dr. Gibbons told the New York Times in 1993.
Among other accomplishments, he helped establish the National Bioethics Advisory Commission and served as a U.S. representative at international science gatherings. He worked on efforts to limit nuclear testing and to bolster funding for the National Institutes of Health.
One of his primary initiatives, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, sought to bring about greater cooperation between the government and private interests, including the auto industry, to improve fuel efficiency and create alternative energy sources.
In 1973, the same year Dr. Gibbons took over the newly formed Federal Office of Energy Conservation, the Arab oil embargo led to an urgent public need to save fuel and promote energy independence. Speed limits were reduced, and citizens were encouraged to curtail the use of electrical appliances and hot water.
Dr. Gibbons’s agency released “Tips for Energy Savers,” a pamphlet spelling out ways the country could collectively save 3 million barrels of oil a day, by such means as unplugging unused televisions, washing clothes in cold water and using windup alarm clocks instead of electric clocks.
From 1975 to 1979, Dr. Gibbons led an energy and environmental center at the University of Tennessee before returning to Washington as director of the Office of Technology Assessment. The OTA was an independent, nonpartisan agency that provided Congress with expert analysis of legislation affecting science and technology, including nuclear weapons, medical practices and the space program. It was sometimes called the technology think tank of Congress.
“What we try to do is ... keep the administration’s claims and the claims of others a little bit more honest,” Dr. Gibbons said in 1989.
In 1995, two years after Dr. Gibbons left the OTA, the $22 million agency was abolished as part of the “Contract With America” promoted by the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives.
Dr. Gibbons believed that elminating the OTA was a foolish move that would waste more money than it would save.
“If you think you can do [OTA’s job] at the academy or somewhere else, you’re just plain wrong,” he told The Washington Post in 1995. “Congress knows what it’s doing — it’s cutting the budget. But I don’t think they know what they’re undoing.”
John Howard Gibbons was born Jan. 15, 1929, in Harrisonburg, Va. His father was a lawyer and the treasurer of what is now James Madison University. His older brother, William Conrad Gibbons, a historian of the Vietnam War, died July 4.
Dr. Gibbons was a 1949 graduate of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., and received a doctorate in physics from Duke University in 1954.
At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he worked for more than 15 years, Dr. Gibbons’s scientific interests included the structure of the atomic nucleus, the formation of stars and the use of technology to conserve energy.
After leaving the White House in 1998, Dr. Gibbons lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served as an adviser to the State Department. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a board chairman of Population Action International, an advocacy group supporting women’s reproductive rights and access to contraception. In 2008, Dr. Gibbons served on a Virginia commission on climate change.
He received many honorary degrees and other awards, including the Leo Szilard Award for Physics in the Public Interest by the American Physical Society. In recent years, he lived in The Plains, Va.
A daughter, Diana C. Gibbons, died in 2014.
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Mary Ann Hobart Gibbons of The Plains; two daughters, Dr. Virginia Barber of Crozet and Mary Marshall Meyer of Virginia Beach; a sister; and eight grandchildren.