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Al Gore for science czar?

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Al Gore for science adviser? He has a great resume, but

the job might call for something other than advocacy.

As experts issue their latest assessment of global warming, and President Bush’s science adviser finds himself in hot water over the topic, policy wonks are starting to think about how climate change and other scientific issues could be handled better in the next administration.

What would Al Gore do?

The former vice president, Oscar winner and Nobel laureate hasn’t made any noises about getting back into politics … yet. Nevertheless, the idea of having Gore as the country’s science czar is a good way to spark a discussion over mixing science and politics.

Should science and politics mix? Some people say they should be separated - with scientists refraining from making policy recommendations, and politicians quietly absorbing the dispassionate dictums of designated eggheads.

"I think that's exactly the wrong thing to do," said Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. Rather, Pielke writes in this week's issue of the journal Nature, the scientific community should foster "more sophisticated ways to integrate science with the needs of policymakers."

Pielke interviewed seven of the 14 men who have served as White House science adviser - a position that President Eisenhower created 50 years ago in the wake of Moscow's Sputnik shocker. Those interviews served as raw material for his Nature commentary as well as a new book titled "The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics."

An options czar, not a science czar

For Pielke, the bottom line is that no one person - not even Al Gore - can hope to be the president's scientific sage. There are just too many viewpoints to manage, and too many issues nowadays that cry out for scientific expertise. We're not just talking about climate change and energy policy here - this also involves matters of life and death (in the form of embryonic stem cells and gene therapy) as well as war and peace (in the form of yellowcake uranium, Iraq's aluminum tubes and Iran's centrifuges).

Pielke prefers to think of the modern-day science adviser as an "options czar": someone who doesn't make (or necessarily defend) the political decisions, but rather manages the flow of information that goes into those decisions. That could avoid the perception that the science adviser is little more than an apologist for White House policies - an image that has dogged the current adviser, physicist John Marburger.

"It's to the advantage of the president, whatever party they happen to be from, to try to preserve the integrity of that office," Pielke told me. "One way of doing that is to ask the adviser for advice, but don't involve them in the nitty-gritty of politics."

This idea of science adviser as options czar - or as the head of an in-house think tank that sifts through political possibilities - originated with social scientist Daniel Yankelovich, who sees the concept as a way of bridging the gap between science and public policy.

There's plenty of precedent for this role, although unfortunately a lot of that precedent has fallen by the wayside in recent years. Pielke said a reformed science office could look much like the congressional Office of Technology Assessment  - which was axed in 1995, soon after the Republicans took charge of Congress. As further examples, he pointed to the British government's "Foresight" process and Germany's enquete commissions.

Climate (policy) change?

We may well see some new blends of science and politics in the next few weeks: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's new report is sure to warm up the political debate over climate change, and Congress is due to take up the issue next month. Also next month, Gore himself is organizing a forum on energy and climate change for presidential candidates, as part of a bipartisan effort also involving California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The outcome could set the stage for a dramatic new response to the challenges posed by a warming world. During his congressional testimony in March, Gore compared the scientific choices to those that a doctor faces when confronted with a feverish child. "If the crib is on fire, you don't speculate that the baby is flame-retardant," Gore said. "You take action."

In contrast, Pielke argues that the response will have to be more nuanced - befitting the role of a science adviser as an options czar rather than a policy advocate.

"I would say the IPCC isn't the last word in the climate debate," he told me. "It gets us into the space where we say, 'OK, what are the options out there?' The fact that action hasn't been taken in terms of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions suggests to me that we just haven't been creative enough in coming up with options that are technically feasible and practically doable."

He delves into this concept - and the contrast with Gore's usual approach - in an op-ed piece that's available as a PDF file.

The political road ahead

Not everyone agrees with Pielke, as demonstrated by this PDF file from an earlier issue of Nature. Pielke has long been involved in rhetorical run-ins with the scientists behind the widely respected Real Climate blog, for instance. But Chris Mooney, the Washington correspondent for Seed magazine, likes the idea of turning White House science advisers into options czars rather than policy apologists.

"I absolutely agree that that's how they should engage," Mooney told me. "But you've got to get the position back to some sort of stature before you get to that point."

Mooney has addressed the politics of science in a couple of books - starting with "The Republican War on Science" and continuing with "Storm World" - and he takes the issue head-on in a Seed article headlined "Dr. President." 

The way Mooney sees it, Marburger's tenure marks a low point for the status of the White House science adviser - although it's not all his fault.

"He wasn't given the Cabinet-level rank that previous advisers had, and he wasn't appointed on time, so people immediately had questions. His influence was weakened in that sense," Mooney said. "And then he became known as the defender of the administration's actions on controversial issues."

He said the next science adviser should fit a different profile.

"The attributes you need are a good relationship with the president, or at least trust," Mooney said. "You need credibility in the science community, but that's no good if you don't have any managerial experience. ... In addition, this person ought to know how to communicate science."

Almost every science adviser since Eisenhower's time has been a physicist - which Mooney said was understandable during the Cold War, when "everyone was worried about space and bombs."

"Now it's climate change and stem cells, and frankly a lot of other things as well," he said. That would argue in favor a non-physicist - someone who is respected either in climate science or biomedicine.

Who's next?

So if a Democrat is elected president, would that make Gore a shoo-in for science adviser? Although Gore may have some impressive medals and statuettes sitting on his shelf, Mooney still thinks this would be a job for an honest-to-goodness scientist rather than a politician.

The first person he mentioned was Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. "He's got the ability to speak to Christian America, and he's got the biomedical bona fides and the managerial experience," Mooney said.

Other prospects on the list include E.O. Wilson (celebrity biologist) and John Holdren (climate change expert).

But even if the next science adviser turns out to be a climatologist, the global-warming issue will require some extra political attention, Mooney added. "You might want the next administration to have a global-warming czar," he said. "Someone who's appointed as an international negotiator."

Hmm. Maybe there's a czardom waiting for Al Gore after all.

What do you think? Feel free to add your comments below.