John H. “Jack” Marburger III, presidential science adviser for President George W. Bush and the third president of the State University of New York, Stony Brook (where he was working as Vice President for Research), has lost his battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was 70. (H/T ScienceInsider)
As is often the case with those who serve as presidential science advisers, Dr. Marburger had a lengthy career often removed from the national spotlight. His academic training was in physics, and served in faculty and administrative positions at the University of Southern California prior to coming to Stony Brook. He was Director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory when President Bush appointed him in late 2001. Marburger is the longest-serving presidential science adviser, and his work helping to shape the Science of Science Policy effort within the federal government is presently undervalued (Marburger was one of the editors and authors of the recent Science of Science Policy: A Handbook). My limited dealings with him following his term suggested a man who was giving careful and thorough thought to how scientific and technical knowledge relate (or don’t) with political authority and political decision-making. Some collections of his thoughts in this area are available, and I’ll link to more as I find them. The latest piece I’ve found from him is this Huffington Post piece from April. It argues against the deep science funding cuts in Rep. Ryan’s budget plan and the harms to science and technology support caused from budgeting by continuing resolution.
I recommend The New York Times obituary for a fuller explanation of how Marburger approached government service (arguably the foundation of much of the criticism he received on the job), but I find this example from the 1980s illustrative.
“When Gov. Mario M. Cuomo appointed him chairman of a fact-finding commission on the contentious issue of the unfinished Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island in 1983, he supervised a group of scientists who arrived at a consensus with which he did not agree. Announcing their findings — that the plant should never open — he told interviewers that he disagreed but added: ‘The governor didn’t want my opinion. He told me that. The governor wanted to know what the situation was. And I delivered that.'”
He received plenty of criticism during his tenure, but in my opinion much of it comes from a misplaced frustration with the President he served and a fundamental misunderstanding of the position of science adviser.
Dr. Marburger will be missed, and hopefully long remembered through the fellowships established in his name. From the Stony Brook notice:
“In lieu of flowers, the Marburger family requests that memorial gifts in Jack’s name be directed to the John H. Marburger, III Memorial Fund. The Fund will support fellowships for women undertaking graduate study in the physical sciences, engineering or mathematics; fellowships for graduate students in music performance; and the Pollock/Krasner House. Please contact the Office of Advancement at (631)632-6300 for information.”