Science Advice for Presidents
Updated: Jan 31
Scientists have been advising presidents at least since World War I -- though it took a while before the politicians understood how much they needed science. When President Woodrow Wilson was asked by the president of the American Chemical Society if the government needed their help, he reportedly said no thanks. He’d checked . . . and the government had a chemist.
Wars past were fought with guns and bombs and ammunition and chemicals and nuclear arms. The present war - on a virus so small trillions could fit on the head of a pin - needs molecular biology. Right now those that can manipulate DNA and RNA are much more valuable soldiers, than all the bomb builders at Los Alamos.
World War I was infamous for its chemical warfare -- remember mustard gas? The United States built large chemical weapons laboratories and manufacturing facilities, and when the war ended in November, 1918, tons of Lewisite, an arsenic compound known as “dew of death” had been made, both at American University in Washington and by a team managed by future Harvard President James Bryant Conant at an old automobile plant in Willoughby, Ohio.
What happened to it? Historians have recently discovered that large quantities of Lewisite and the wastes from its manufacture were shipped by train to Baltimore where it was put on a ship and dumped at sea.
Hopefully, we won’t pay a long-term environmental price! Washington residents, on the other hand, are still haggling over who should pay for cleaning up all the arsenic in the ground at American University.
The U.S. Chemical Warfare service was founded during WWI and it lives on today as the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, even though we have mostly avoided taking part in chemical warfare for more than a century. We should have learned another lesson, however: How important it is for government to pay attention to science. The Germans understood that well.
They lost World War I – but as the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s, it was soon evident that Germany had large intellectual, manufacturing and business resources devoted to the chemical sciences. They had been the first to use chlorine and mustard gas in 1915, and there was every reason to believe things would get lot worse in a new war.
They might well have been: The deadly nerve agents tabun and sarin were synthesized by Bayer’s Gerhard Schrader in the mid-1930’s and patented in both Germany and the US. Had anyone been really savvy they could have found out about these nerve agents long before the compounds were revealed to the British by Schrader at the end of the war. America weaponry was nowhere near as well prepared. So when the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, thinking people here began to worry. Vannevar Bush, a former dean of engineering at MIT, convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create a National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) in 1940 that included Bush, Harvard’s Conant, MIT President Karl Compton and Frank Jewett, President of National Academy of Sciences.
Their mission was “to coordinate, supervise, and conduct scientific research on the problems underlying the development, production, and use of mechanisms and devices of warfare.” After America entered the war, it was superseded by the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). OSRD organized U.S. scientific research so that hundreds of university scientists contributed through research to the war effort. Most notably the Manhattan Project which created the atomic bomb came from OSRD.
After World War II ended, Bush argued vigorously in favor of continued government support for science. By 1950, thanks to his efforts, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was organized. For most of its history, NSF has been mostly controlled by physicists.
Biomedical research was left to the National Institutes of Health, and the NIH, orchestrated by then-U.S. Surgeon General Thomas Parran, generated its own set of models and mainly paid attention to clinical issues when it came to disease, not research.
Bush was the first ‘science advisor to the President,’ though he didn’t have that title. Eventually, every president began appointing a science advisor. They were nearly all physicists, and it went without saying they were there to supervise and build bombs for the next war.
Biomedical advice was left to the NIH, and to a succession of Surgeon Generals of varying abilities. Some of whom, like anti-smoking crusader C. Everett Koop, were memorable, and others not so much. Both positions -- science advisor to the president and surgeon general -- assumed greater or lesser importance depending on the president. In President Trump’s case it took a couple of years for any science advisor to be appointed. And when he was, he was a minor league appointee - a meteorologist (think weatherman) from landlocked Oklahoma who, among other things, studied oceans.
We’ve paid a steep price for having a President who was not interested in advice from the sciences. Lone wolf ideas of no scientific merit are just part of that. I hold a patent on the use of deep UV radiation to photodecompose animal fat, and waited eagerly for entrepreneurs to call to license it, after President Trump bizarrely suggested getting light inside the human body to kill the virus. But, alas, no one ever did.
The legitimate scientists who found themselves spokespersons for the Trump administration – Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci – were overwhelmed and scared. Neither was allowed to be effective. The surgeon general just past was essentially silent. As a result, we are enduring the worst pandemic in a century. Because an administration was hostile to science, many Americans have died as a result.
This is what President Biden inherited – but he set about fixing things in a hurry. Biden invoked the recent 75th anniversary of Science — The Endless Frontier, a landmark report that Vannevar Bush wrote for FDR near the end of World War II. Biden wrote, “I believe it is essential that we refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years, so that our children and grandchildren may inhabit a healthier, safer, more just, peaceful, and prosperous world.” He announced he would elevate the post of science advisor to cabinet level, nominated the highly-respected molecular biologist Eric Lander to be science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology With the Lander appointment, America is facing the war that is; not the war that was. With the prospect of WWIII being a war against viruses, all the bomhs in New Mexico atom smashers can stockpile are to fight the enemy that isn’t.
This was stunningly good news. He also recognized that a president is known by outcomes; not loyalties. In the sciences, his advisors are the best in the world. He introduced the new co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), Caltech biochemist and Nobel laureate Frances Arnold and MIT geophysicist and vice president for research Maria Zuber. The new President also announced he has chosen to keep Francis Collins on as director of the National Institutes of Health, a position he has held since President Obama appointed him in 2009.
Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will remain in his job, and is now also liaison to WHO, the World Health Organization, which President Biden immediately rejoined. Science speaks no language except its own. The world of collaborations is required by its community. America has to be part of the world’s community.
One may quibble with pieces of the Biden strategy, as well as the advisory team. But in terms of science, our nation has gone from night to day. For the first time, America has realized the future of all humankind is in the hands of a virus so small that trillions could fit on the head of a pin.
Biden has convinced an American molecular biological A-team to lead the government’s efforts, made science advisor a cabinet-level position, and given this small group of scientists the power to develop a strategy and get the authority and money to develop new weapons to fight viruses, both COVID-19e, and any new ones that will inevitably arise.
Biden has recognized the world’s problems have gone from huge to miniscule; and by the excellence of those from whom one gets advice, great solutions are most likely to arise. We’ve come a long way in a matter of days, from a lone physicist who studied oceans in Oklahoma, to an advisory team filled with Nobel laureates and other scientific leaders in molecular biology, and it should make a real difference. Let’s hope they leave their egos at the door and get on with the awesome work of coming up with an ingenious approach to save humankind that goes beyond mere faith in vaccines. For we don’t have the luxury of time.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, the McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. Follow his website, Science in 3D, at 3dscienceblog.com