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When I Worked at the White House: Advice on the Transition

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I had the privilege of serving for four years in the White House under Bill Clinton as the Assistant Director for International Science and Technology. Unlike my fellow Democrats setting up shop in the Old Executive Office Building after Clinton's victory, I was already there, for I had been previously assigned to the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the last year of the Bush I Administration. To my knowledge, I was the only political appointee holdover in the White House between the two administrations. That unique experience gave me a rare opportunity to see up close and personal, from the trenches, the full transition of power from one party to the other.

My lasting impression is the awesome power of the presidency being handed peacefully from a defeated president to his victor. While the transition is not without difficulties, our Founding Fathers would be bursting with pride to see the best of democracy in action. We take this for granted now, but the peaceful ceding of power to a new leader is a recent phenomenon in human history, dating back to our own revolution. We often forget, but the quadrennial election of a new president, the orderly transfer of power from one leader to the next, and the cyclical opportunity for the American people to redirect the nation's path qualify as some of humankind's greatest achievements, and one of our country's greatest gifts to the world. That we now accept this as a natural condition testifies to the tremendous success of the American Revolution.

In those broad strokes, the picture is rosy. But the details are less attractive, and we have veered from the righteous path in the past eight years. We have forsaken our ideals and squandered our moral authority. We have fallen woefully behind the rest of the world in critical areas of research and technology as a consequence of Bush's war on reason and open hostility toward science. We have lost our way, and lost sight of who and what we are as a nation under the dark days of Bush and Cheney.

The utter and complete failure of the Bush Administration will make the upcoming transition to an Obama presidency even more challenging than usual. Yes, I am assuming that Obama will declare victory on November 4.

The natural tendency in victory is to denounce the past. Disparaging the vanquished is emotionally satisfying, and often easily justified by the misdeeds of the losing party and outgoing staff. We have a strong urge to punish those who perpetrated various outrages upon us. We naturally want to see justice served against politicians who have committed crimes, threatened our way of life, diminished our security and ignored the world's most pressing environmental problems.

We must resist the urge. As an active participant in a transition of power between parties, I can say with no hesitation that the new team will simply not have constructive time to devote to glancing behind no matter how strong the pull or no matter how deep the justification. A day consisting of only 24 hours imposes real constraints as staff works furiously to put together briefing books on the most urgent issues facing the new president. Any effort to look back will diminish precious resources in moving forward.

In looking ahead, here is my unsolicited advice for the incoming science staff, the arena with which I am most familiar. Your president will be preoccupied with pressing issues of national security, infrastructure collapse, economic crises and fast-moving international challenges. Even with a president predisposed to S&T, the issues will get lost unless you make science relevant to Obama's full plate. You must inject science in the earliest days of the administration to establish precedent and create awareness that science and technology are critical to the Obama agenda.

In your first briefing with the president, highlight just one key area to get his attention:

Climate Change and Energy Independence as National Security Imperatives: how science can lead efforts in prevention, amelioration and adaptation to global warming, wean us from fossil fuels, secure the environment for future generations, and protect our national security from the deleterious impacts of a changing climate.

With this firmly implanted as the highest priority for the science office, lay out for Obama the broader road map and prioritized list of issues that his science advisor will focus on to help the president meet his broader objectives. Keep it simple:

Health Care: emerging diseases, pandemics, antibiotic resistance as a major public health threat, stem cell research, biosecurity and bioterrorism.

Environment: climate change, tropical forests, ocean health and coral reefs, biodiversity, pollution standards, sustainable development.

Renewable Energy: wind, solar, geothermal, and the transition to a hydrogen economy.

Infrastructure Development: materials science, civil engineering.

Expanding Human Knowledge: education, high-energy physics, astronomy and space science.

International Cooperation: science and science cooperation as effective diplomatic tools, tracking advances in other countries and their impacts on U.S. economic and security interests.

Science and technology are critical to solving our most important problems concerning the environment, economy and national security. Keep advice concise, relevant and prioritized and you can ensure that science will considered appropriately in the decision-making process at the highest levels, up to and including the Oval Office.