When John Marburger III, President Bush’s choice for White House science advisor, arrived at the beleaguered Brookhaven National Laboratory three years ago, he tried to reassure David Sprintzen, a grass-roots community organizer on Long Island.
“He said Big Science cannot operate the way it used to,” recalled Sprintzen, a member of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, which harbored doubts about Marburger’s first steps to heal the lab’s relationship with its neighbors. “It cannot operate in secret. We cannot use national defense as a cover for secrecy--there’s no Cold War anymore.”
With that, Marburger, whose friends call him Jack, began to establish a new culture of openness at the U.S. Department of Energy’s lab at a time when it was badly needed.
“Most scientists aren’t very good at communicating. They are intelligent, but often quirky, difficult people,” said Scott Cullen, counsel to the Standing for Truth about Radiation Foundation, a group that promotes nonnuclear power sources.
“The attitude of scientists was always: ‘Just leave us alone. We know best.’ ” Cullen added. “But he has never been like that. He takes the time to listen to people. I’ve definitely had disagreements with him, but he listens.”
Now, Marburger’s supporters hope the skills he demonstrated at Brookhaven will stand him in good stead as he takes on the challenge of advising an administration that in its brief tenure has had tense relations with much of the country’s scientific establishment.
In its first few months, administration officials have angered many climate scientists by questioning the science behind forecasts of global warming, dismayed medical researchers with a long-drawn debate over federal funding of stem cell research and drafted an energy policy that many researchers thought gave short shrift to new technologies and energy conservation efforts.
Those who have worked with him in the past wonder if even Marburger’s diplomatic skills will allow the lifelong Democrat to resolve those tensions.
A Low Profile Until Senate Confirmation
“John Marburger is going to have his hands full trying to instill some much-needed sanity into the current drill-and-burn energy policy,” said Gordian Raacke, executive director of Citizens Advisory Panel, a Long Island energy watchdog group.
As science advisor to the president and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Marburger will juggle an array of issues as he helps the Bush administration develop its science policies, including stem cell research, energy, and missile defense. In keeping with tradition among nominees, Marburger has declined to be interviewed until after his Senate confirmation. He has taken no public position on Bush’s supply-side energy plan. Nor has he expressed views on whether the federal government should fund research using stem cells derived from human embryos.
He is, of course, a proponent of nuclear power. That’s a given for anyone who heads a national lab such as Brookhaven.
But those who know him well said they believe Marburger will see the job as another challenge, just as he viewed his rehabilitation of Brookhaven’s image when he arrived there in 1998.
“I think if you’d asked people about his decision to move to Brookhaven at its time of crisis, you would have asked the same thing: What on Earth is this guy doing?” said John Shanklin, a biochemist at Brookhaven. “I think Jack is someone who sees potentially negative situations as opportunities. He was very excited about this when I talked to him.”
Neal Lane, who served as science advisor to President Clinton during his second term, said he believes the nature of the job--different from that of a Cabinet secretary or agency chief--will enable Marburger to function effectively, and above politics.
“The science advisor’s job is primarily an inside job, to advise the president,” Lane said. “That advice, to be valuable, has to be private--between you and the president. The science advisor should not have any conflicts with politics.”
Marburger, 60, is married, with two sons and one grandson. Friends say he likes gardening, music, woodworking, reading and horseback riding. “And he drives an old MG, from the 1970s,” Shanklin said. He was born on Staten Island, N.Y., graduated in 1962 from Princeton University, where he majored in physics, and received a doctorate in applied physics from Stanford University in 1967.
Before coming to Long Island in 1980, he spent many years at USC, where, in the 1970s, he was professor of physics and electrical engineering. He served as chairman of USC’s physics department and dean of its College of Letters, Arts and Science.
While at USC, he contributed to the field of nonlinear optics, an area of growing interest since the invention of the laser in 1960. He developed a theory for various laser phenomena, and co-founded USC’s center for laser studies.
He moved to Long Island to become president of State University of New York, Stony Brook, a position he held until 1994, when he returned to teaching. As part of the Stony Brook faculty, he taught and conducted research in optical science.
Three years later, he became president of Brookhaven Science Associates, a partnership founded by Stony Brook and Battelle, a nonprofit science and technology organization contracted to manage and operate the Brookhaven lab in the aftermath of its problems.
Those problems had become public in January 1997 when the lab admitted that radioactive tritium had been leaking into Long Island’s ground water for years. The revelation confirmed a long-held and widespread mistrust that had permeated the lab’s relationship with the community. In response, the Energy Department fired the management team that was running the lab, bringing Marburger in as its director.
In short order, he left the isolation of the lab to meet with community residents, trying to help them understand exactly what the lab was doing and listening to their concerns.
Marburger created a permanent advisory council to make the concerns of the neighbors known to the lab’s managers and accelerated the schedule for cleaning up its pollution. In 1999, Bill Richardson, then the secretary of Energy, ordered that Brookhaven’s nuclear reactor be shut down permanently. Marburger supervised its dismantling.
“He was able to turn around the really terrible image that Brookhaven lab had on Long Island,” Raacke said. “Once people started to feel they could trust him, that turned into a feeling [of] being able to trust the lab’s policies more.”
Tackling the Nation’s Science Phobia
His colleagues say he will likely try to do for the administration what he has done for Brookhaven--make science understandable and less fearsome.
“I see the major issue with science in the United States today as a growing phobia toward science in general,” Shanklin said. “Science is advancing on so many fronts so quickly, that there’s a disconnect between what people perceive and what science actually is. There are many people with legitimate concerns about where science is headed.
“And if anyone could communicate the facts to the administration and to the public, Jack is the perfect person.”