R.I.P. John Marburger, Bush White House science adviser

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The Washington Post reports: “John H. ‘Jack’ Marburger, 70, a former college president who endured strident criticism from his fellow scientists as the chief science adviser to President George W. Bush, died July 28 at his home in Port Jefferson, N.Y. He had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.” It has been said that Washingtonians wonder what words will appear ‘between the commas’ in the very first sentence of their obituary in the Post. There it is, a public bottom line of sorts. Climate Science Watch was hard on Dr. Marburger while he worked in the Bush-Cheney regime.

70 years old. Intimations of mortality, having just turned 68 myself. Would that Dr. Marburger could have enjoyed a longer retirement after departing the grinding Washington policy wars.

His tenure here in the nation’s capital was rocky, in an administration that had a highly problematic relationship with the science community – as well as the climate science-policy nexus with which Climate Science Watch has been preoccupied.

From the Washington Post July 31 (July 30 online):

… Soon after Bush took office in 2001, the administration withdrew support for the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to battle global warming. The administration also restricted the use of embryonic stem cells in scientific research, maintaining that they were derived from the destruction of human embryos.

In response to these policies, more than 60 top scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, put Dr. 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.

Four months later, 48 Nobel Prize winners issued a similar letter excoriating the administration for its stances on climate change, stem cells and other scientific matters. Dr. Marburger was singled out as the administration’s whipping boy…

From the New York Times July 29 obituary:

… But as successful as he may have been in managing conflict in past jobs, Dr. Marburger encountered new controversy in Washington. He was widely criticized for defending Bush policies on abstinence-only education and global warming, especially in his defense against an assertion by the National Academy of Sciences that political influence was contaminating the scientific research in government agencies.

In a critical editorial in April 2004, The New York Times, addressing accusations that the Bush administration had distorted or suppressed scientific information that would conflict with its policy preferences, acknowledged the respect Dr. Marburger commanded, calling him “a respected physicist and lifelong Democrat who would not seem an automatic apologist for this administration.” But it added, “The question yet to be answered is whether he is speaking from conviction when he claims that the critics are off base or is serving as a frontman for an administration whose activities in this area are sometimes hard to defend.”…

I didn’t know Dr. Marburger personally although our paths crossed from time to time. The U.S. Global Change Research Program, for which I worked in the program coordination office, was supposedly under the oversight of his Office of Science and Technology Policy. However, in the sharp elbows influence game of connecting (or disconnecting) climate science and climate policy, it seemed to me that Dr. Marburger and OSTP were outgunned by the corporate front-men Jim Connaughton and Phil Cooney at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who were wired to Vice President Cheney’s office, and also by the Commerce Department/NOAA political appointees Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher and Jim Mahoney. Marburger was a loyal soldier, as were the others, but he wasn’t running the show.

As far back as 2002, it appeared to me that, when questioned about global warming, Dr. Marburger would respond like someone who was looking over his shoulder in deference to Bush-Cheney political sensitivities on this issue. His responses to questions always pulled back from a straightforward use of IPCC language on anthropogenic climate change, to keep his formulations closer to the manufactured sense of scientific uncertainty that characterized Bush administration officials and aligned them with the slant of the global warming disinformation campaign.

I think Marburger lost credibility with non-global-warming-deniers on the Hill and with the science community by giving the impression that, when pressed on global warming, he was speaking more as a representative of Bush-Cheney than as a true intellectually independent scientist. He may have believed that he was maintaining his integrity by not stating his own personal views, but this raised the ubiquitous Washington question: when does institutional authority deference turn into professionally inappropriate complicity? Food for thought on the proper role of the science adviser.

CSW posted numerous times on issues involving Dr. Marburger. Key examples:

Marburger’s legacy: John Holdren must restore credibility to the White House science office (January 30, 2009)

John Marburger’s Bromley Lecture: Illumination or whitewash? (April 19, 2009)

Prof. Ray Pierrehumbert, a climate scientist in the “reality-based community,” finds science advisor Marburger talk “scary” (December 12, 2007)

Climate Change Science Program assessment failures aired at Senate Commerce oversight hearing (December 3, 2007)

Marburger vs. Connaughton rhetoric on need for “urgent” action on climate change (December 2, 2007)

White House science director Marburger says Earth may become “unlivable” without CO2 emissions cut (September 17, 2007)

Bush-Cheney Administration spins a sound legal defeat into an affirmation of their illegal actions (August 27, 2007)

Court Rules that Bush Admin. Unlawfully failed to produce Scientific Assessment of Global Change (August 22, 2007)

Science editor Kennedy: Science community recognizes Administration puts politics before science (August 7, 2007)

OSTP Director Marburger’s misleading testimony on NPOESS space-based climate observations (July 7, 2007)

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3 Responses to R.I.P. John Marburger, Bush White House science adviser

  1. Eli Rabett says:

    White House Science Advisors ARE representatives of the President. It goes with the job, so maybe you are being a bit hard on Marburger. Still it will be amusing to see the next WHSA in a Republican administration unless there is a sea change (and especially if the sea does change in the direction it is moving:)

    • Rick Piltz says:

      Thanks Eli. I don’t insist that my assessment is the only way of looking at it. It’s just my thoughts and, for the record, links to issues I observed and commented on. However, I do think any assessment should find an appropriate way to address such issues vis-a-vis the role of the Science Adviser. Also, it’s not just a matter of direct representatives of the White House. I observed that the federal senior career science technocracy executives had issues of when the lines were crossed on what I call complicity and collaborationism. A prominent screenwriter, on hearing my story about working inside the USGCRP under Bush, told me he thought the most interesting angle was how a whole town full of experienced and knowing federal professionals could fall silent in complicity with such egregious misrule — and this was not just a reference to climate science, it was across the board. It’s a problem that should be pursued with those who were in senior positions, i.e., how did they see their professional responsibilities vis-a-vis White House politics, and how did they frame the normative issues?

  2. Eli Rabett says:

    From my experience with these folk, they try and put a moat between their science and what they perceive as the government policy. Sometimes it is hard to watch the gymnastics.

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