William T. Golden

Science Advisor

VTR Date: August 12, 1980

Guest: Golden, William T.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: William Golden
Title: “Science Advisor”
VTR: 8/12/80

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My guest today created for Harry S. Truman the first design for formal presidential science advisor and science advisory apparatus as far back as three decades ago. That apparatus grew and flourished under Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy; suffered somewhat under Johnson; was dismantled by Nixon; surfaced a bit under Ford; still more under Carter; and now is being pushed to the fore again by William T. Golden, a rather remarkable example of how a single, public-spirited citizen can contribute so much to industry, science, education, and the governance of our larger affairs. I’m delighted to have you here today, Mr. Golden. I think it’s probably an appropriate time, three decades later, to find you pushing the same notion of bringing into the highest councils of government, of presidential government, the concept of a science advisory committee. Once again I know there is a science advisor. I wanted to begin the program, and I hope you won’t feel this is unfair – The question I had written out, because I wanted to be rather precise about it, to ask you today, is that in your experience and estimation, are scientists any more honest, forthcoming, selfless than men and women of other callings who surround the president? Is there something about the scientific calling that makes them so or not so?

GOLDEN: I would think it would be fair to say that they’re human beings like the rest of us and that there’s a spectrum of character. I think, in their profession they should be more accurate and they should be more devoted to precision. On the other hand, there’s also a large element of the artist in any, most very successful scientist, there’s a talent factor involved. I would, to answer offhand; I would say I don’t think in the aggregate they differ very much from the rest of us.

HEFFNER: But shouldn’t the pursuit of science, the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of understanding, untainted perhaps by political or personal considerations, make these people somewhat different from the rest of us? I know each one of the men puts his pants on one trouser leg at a time, but…

GOLDEN: Not the most agile of them.

HEFFNER: Not the most agile? All right.

GOLDEN: They can jump to conclusions or into their trousers.

HEFFNER: Well, what about that? Would you feel comfortable about a science advisor to the president who jumped to conclusions?

GOLDEN: No, I would not. But that’s one of the reasons why, since there’s always a hazard that any of us may jump to a conclusion, why it’s desirable to have a president’s science advisory committee in addition to a science advisor. It’s not the only reason, and it’s not, I think, the principle reason. But now that you bring it up, I think it is a good reason to have it.

HEFFNER: Let’s go back to this question of what one can demand of science and of scientists in the White House in terms of an advisory committee or in terms of the science advisor to the president. Does he serve science, or does he serve the president, or does he serve the presidency?

GOLDEN: He should serve us, the citizens. But he should do that through the medium of the president, who is our elected head of government. He should not be there as a representative of science or of the scientists. And when I say “science” I generally will mean technology, engineering as well as science, which is what most people think of as science, and certainly it’s comprised within what we’re talking about here today. I would say that the science advisor and the president’s science advisory committee, should it be reconstituted as I think it should be, are there to serve the country. Perhaps that’s a truism. But they should do it through the president. They are not there as advocates of the scientific and technological community. If they are, they won’t survive. They won’t do the job well. They won’t survive.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by that?

GOLDEN: And they won’t serve the president well, either.

HEFFNER: Well, wait a minute. First, what do you mean “they won’t survive”?

GOLDEN: Well, they’re not to be there as advocates. The function, as I see it, and I think it is generally seen, I don’t think there’s much argument about this: The function of the science advisory apparatus that you should have, organization let me say, should be to help the president in the formulation of major policies; this, therefore, being at the top level of the government, top level of the executive branch, although there is also an important involvement clearly with the Congress. It should be to serve in the formulation of policies on a broad spectrum of issues in which science is involved in the fabric, although it may not be the major thread. And as we think about it, if we go back to 1950-51, when President Truman established the first one of these science advisory organizations, the big issue at the time, indeed the reason, the stimulus for the study that led to this creation was concern over military matters and defense matters. Well, the country and the world have come a long way since then. We’re still no less concerned probably about military and defense matters. We are more concerned with disarmament matters or let’s say, arms control is a better term. But we’re also concerned – by “we” I mean the government and the people – with what might very broadly be called social issues. And these will include almost every major policy before the government. Certainly science and technology are involved in economic issues. It’s self-evident, the importance of technology. Indeed our country has been losing ground in this field as many of us are well aware in the past decade, anyway. So science and technology are involved with almost everything. They’re involved in education, they’re involved in agriculture, they’re involved in medicine and health services, they’re involved in transportation. Really it would be rather difficult to find a major field in which there must be national policy and perhaps flexibility and flux in national policy in which science and technology do not play a significant but now always immediately apparent role. If they’re ignored, if science and technology are ignored in the policy formulation, they’re there anyway by default, and perhaps to our disservice.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

GOLDEN: That’s a long response.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “disservice”, then?

GOLDEN: Oh, I think these matters must be considered. If, for example, we are concerned, let’s say, with the economic progress of our country and with the loss of ground – because certainly our country has lost ground since the end of World War II when we had a primacy in military, political and economic affairs; perhaps in social, and I think in intellectual, at the end of World War II. I’m taking what might be a crucial turning point. Since then, other countries have made progress. Whether we have lost ground or whether the others have gained or whether it’s some of each is, I think, debatable and not the subject of our conversation today. But I think if we were talking, let us say, about economic matters, there’s certainly concern about technology s it affects the productivity of American industry and American labor.

HEFFNER: But suppose we held ourselves for a moment to such issues, well, the equivalent, the counterpart of the scientific questions; perhaps less technological, more scientific overall, scientific questions that plague the presidency when you served President Truman. Questions of atomic power…


HEFFNER: …nuclear power. Today perhaps, questions of genetic engineering.


HEFFNER: To what degree have these become political rather than scientific considerations?

GOLDEN: Well, I think they’re both. It’s clear…let’s take energy which is certainly at the forefront of most of our minds, one topic in the forefront. There are certainly scientific and technical questions there. And I used the word “questions” twice, because many of them are not resolved. What is the hazard in a nuclear plant? It has to be quantified. It’s difficult to quantify. There are emotional issues involved. Like, of course, there are great hazards involved in the use of nuclear energy. There are tradeoffs. Coming to the question of political…I think we’re leading up to the political, starting with what are just human-nature questions, reasonable ones. How great is the risk? Are we prepared to take any risk? A common comparison being automobiles that kill 50,000 people a year and put probably ten times that number in the hospital for greater or less time. Well, one really questions. We want to have the automobiles. So if we had the issue before us at the moment, shall it be permitted to make automobiles, there would be debates, I would think, and there would be strong emotions involved. People say, “What? Start an industry in which 50,000 people will be killed a year?” And they would be really valid concerns. Now, I think many of those enter into the nuclear power question, without regard to nuclear weapons, just nuclear power. They also enter into ecological questions where technology comes in; the use of coal; the use of other sources of energy, including efforts to invent those which have not yet been invented.

HEFFNER: Now, what role does the scientific community play in just these questions today?

GOLDEN: Well, science is certainly at the root of all this.

HEFFNER: No, in the decision making now?

GOLDEN: Oh, in the decision making. Well, scientific issues have to be considered, do they not? Let’s consider the question of nuclear power. What shall be the policy of the government? And I’m taking here the policy at the top. At the top is the executive branch of the president, and at the top is the Congress. Shall we promote increased nuclear power, or shall we restrict it? Or shall we terminate it altogether? What are the issues involved? Putting aside the emotional and what have become political because if one side is for I the other perhaps has to be against it to a degree; there are very serious questions of science and technology. But what is the risk? Can it indeed be measured? How much radiation is acceptable without doing any damage? These are questions we all see in the newspapers and there are able, even prominent people in the world of science and technology who take different views on it.

HEFFNER: Well, then, that, of course, brings us back to the question of to what degree is the President of the United States advantaged, in these areas where there are these divisions in the scientific community by having a science advisor, by having a scientific advisory committee?

GOLDEN: Well, first we must ask, do we believe that intellectual considerations are good ones? Or shall we proceed on a Khomeini method, which is after all, quite popular in some parts of the world? I will take the position that it’s better to know than not to know, or to know more than to know less.

HEFFNER: But to know what? Which of the scientific bits of advice?

GOLDEN: Well, I think that there are some aspects of science and technology which can be stated as facts. There are others in which there are quantitative considerations involving unknowns. Just to go aside for a moment, the DNA question which was such a hot issue a few years ago, and rightly, and will continue to be, was one in which there were questions of unknown risks. New creations, what will the risk be, will Pandora’s Box, when opened, release irreversible consequences? Well, I take the position, and I think many others do, that it’s better for the President to have advice of the quality of risks, the magnitude of risks, and one might say the range of risks, and then make some decisions and what are tended to be called increasingly tradeoffs as to what the best policy would be granted that there are many unknown factors. The best policy I would say, first from a technological, economic, practical, social point of view without regard to the political. Then the political has to be considered. Now, it may be considered first because one can perhaps quickly jump and say that’s too hot to handle. But many issues are pushed upon the President, or should be.

HEFFNER: Isn’t it fair to say, Mr. Golden, that the political is considered first in the choice of those who will sit at the President’s elbow?

GOLDEN: Well, I’m reminded that just recently someone asked me what do I think of the state of the presidency. And I thought and fortunately recalled what Mark Twain said. He was asked, “What do you think of the music of Wagner?” “Oh”, said Mark Twain, “the music of Wagner? The music of Wagner? Well, it’s better than it sounds”.

HEFFNER: Is that your answer to my question?

GOLDEN: The answer to your question; that is my response to your question.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

GOLDEN: I think the people around the President have to be primarily political animals but not exclusively so. And I would think that those I have known in the past that many of them combine both of these. If they are not political animals they won’t survive.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s interesting, because I had been reading your extraordinary little volume here – not little volume – Science Advice to the President, the one you edited recently with the contributions by so many of the scientists who had participated in the science advisory apparatus in the White House and who knew a great deal about it. And I was interested in William Carey’s comment on this wonderful chapter called “The Pleasures of Advising”.


HEFFNER: He says, “Objectivity is the boast of science, and the working assumption is that the presidential science advisor comes to the White House without the stain of original sin”. I assume that means political orientation. You seem to be rejecting that notion which he goes on to reject too, of course.

GOLDEN: There has to be “the stain” of original sin in order, I think, to be an effective advisor or in the field of politics and government one has to, I think – let’s say I don’t like to use the term “original sin” – but one has to consider practical issues as well as what might be the perfectionist, idealistic approach with which many people, I think I among them, would like to see when advising in the field of politics and government. And I think many presidents might start that way but they will quickly jump. They perhaps have to start from, what was said: “Politics are the art of the feasible”, or something of that sort.

HEFFNER: “Or the possible”. Right.

GOLDEN: Yes. So I think that must be. But still, there’s room for idealists among advisors, let’s say, perfectionists as well. That influences the outcome.

HEFFNER: But isn’t that saying – I don’t mean to put words in your mouth by any means – but it seems to me that that is saying that what you need, what you look for is not the scientist or scientific advisor but a political scientific advisor to the President. Because at least in terms of what I think are most people’s traditional approach to science, that it has to do with real knowledge, real facts undiluted by original sin. And you said before that there are many things that can be stated as facts if the advisor to the President in the area of science or the advisors, if we are fortunate again to have such a commission or committee, if they go in with that understanding that one bends a little, takes a little, gives a little, because Mr. Carey goes onto indicate, as you have, that if one is not, well, he says, “There is, in addition, a subjective factor which takes us back to the fragile character of the advisory office. One individual who served as a White House science advisor once remarked to me that he would not fight through an issue unless he thought his chances of winning were better than even. Losers do not last in Washington, certainly not around the White House”. Then does a scientist, then, have any business being in Washington or around the White House if he’s not ready to lose on the basis of fact or principle?

GOLDEN: Well, I think there’s a point at which anyone, certainly including Bill Carey, who is a man of virtue as well as wisdom, would say this is an issue on which I will put up as much of a struggle as I can. If I lose, I will, let’s say, resign, because I cannot effectively serve my president. I disagree with him. I could state my view as firmly and as effectively as I can, not only to the President, but to the staff which surrounds him and which is a membrane through which all others penetrate and other bodies such as the National Security Council, which is very importantly involved. He must try his best. Failing, he may resign. At that point he becomes a private citizen and can advocate his own point of view. While he’s the President’s science advisor he can only do it privately if he’s to conduct hi8mself as he should and avoid being fired.

HEFFNER: Would you advise – and you’ve had many of them, I’m sure – a close friend, major scientist, man of impeccable character, devoted to the pursuit of truth, to put himself in the position of being Science Advisor to the President?

GOLDEN: Oh yes, I would, if he were the man of the right temperament as well as of the right intellect. I think it involves both. I think some people, whether they’re scientists or others, would be frustrated by service in Washington, and temperamentally be incapable of doing it. Perhaps they should be philosophers, perhaps they should be writers on the outside, as many very able people are, without having those qualities which permit them to flourish, let alone survive, in the Washington scene. But I don’t think they ought to adapt to the realities of politics — necessarily destroy or even impair the effectiveness of an advisor, whether it be in science or otherwise. Indeed, I think any advisor must have these matters in mind unless he is to be a kind of intellectual advisor not in the chain of command at all, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt had a number of intellectuals around him, some in positions of authority but others, I think, as I recall it from long ago, in intellectual advisory roles. I think the president’s science advisor has to be a man who has stature in the scientific community, although his stature may increase if he performs well. Frank Press, the present advisor, was respected as a scholar in his field of geology, but was not one of the most prominent scientists by any means. There’s Ed David; when he was there under President Nixon he was respected but not widely known. Other earlier ones such as Lee, was a very well known man. And James Killian was the head of NYT. So I think there are many kinds of individuals so far as their prominence who can serve in that role. But all of them must be respected to serve effectively. I think first must be respected by the scientific community; second, they must be respected by the president. And the president must trust them for judgment and for loyalty. If not, what happens is what happened under President Nixon, where they get put on the shelves and finally just have their heads cut off organizationally.

HEFFNER: But that’s quite a combination: judgment and loyalty. They seem to be on a collision course themselves.

GOLDEN: I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think that to serve one’s president one must be loyal since telling him what one really thinks, of not speaking outside against one’s commanding officer, and though this may be difficult, I think that criticism, if given privately, is frequently more valuable than praise. The president is surrounded by people who praise him and “yes” him. Any person in that position…it’s a rare advisor who will speak with him privately and with appropriate modesty, but nevertheless clearly, in criticism of the president. What could be better than to tell a person in advance where the weakness is in his armor? Not every president may want that.

HEFFNER: I find it so difficult to picture a man of science confining his differences with major public policy that relates to scientific matters, confining his differences to the privacy of his exchange with the president. That must be an enormous burden upon a man who’s dedicated to searching out and giving expression to the true as he sees it.

GOLDEN: Well, I think this is a matter of degree. I think that it’s quite clear that he can’t speak to no one, the advisor, I mean. He must speak with others. And therefore, this is not an absolutely sealed relationship between the president and the science advisor, nor would it be sensible. No science advisor is that omniscient, nor that wise. He must consult with others in the scientific community.

HEFFNER: I guess the thing I’m puzzling about, Mr. Golden, and I admit I’m just puzzling because I’m not in the scientific community, is trying to figure out how a man who spends his life in the pursuit of knowledge can in any way not give expression to what he believes is the fact of, or are the facts of the matter. And his loyalty to the president, in terms of something you said at the beginning: “He serves not just the president or the presidency, but serves all of the American people”…How can in these important areas, again go back to questions of nuclear power or energy or DNA experiments, etcetera…How can he not be a loyal subject to anything other than scientific endeavor? How can he work for the president, a man?

GOLDEN: Well, I don’t see any necessary conflict at all. I think that he is there, the president has issues before him, the president, and we must remember his staff, have issues before them, a wide spectrum of fields. The science advisor should be aware of what is going on within the top level of the executive branch so that he is in a position either to volunteer or to respond to questions. As I see it, he must be, he should be sufficiently well informed and therefore trusted by the president and the president’s staff so that he is privy to the major issues that are under consideration. Of course, most of those you know from the newspaper. But there’s something more than that about it. So that I think underlies…He must be trusted. The general, spiritual, intellectual character…Once he is, he must be there to put inputs of his views – and I want to qualify the “his” in a moment – before the president and the president’s staff as saying these elements are involved in the decisions and the policy you’re evolving with respect to energy issues for the country. And there must be many points of view there. There’ll be many points of view in the scientific and technological community. There are indeed, on energy matters. There were indeed, and still are indeed, on DNA matters. He must try to bring these before the president. It’s politically important that the president know that this is not a monolithic viewpoint. And no science advisor would be that wise in all fields, even thought he may be very well qualified in a field of his own. He must be a generalist. So he must try to ascertain these. And he must then give his reasoned viewpoint as a lawyer would to you if you were his client. I don’t think it’s so difficult. He won’t have a yes or no, black or white, one or ten answer very often.

HEFFNER: Mr. Golden, earlier you used the matter of the lawyer. I wondered whether there isn’t an important analogy here. But of course, I wonder that just at the exact time at which we have to bring the program to an end. But thank you very, very much for joining me today. And we’ll have to continue this discussion another time, William T. Golden.

GOLDEN: I’ve enjoyed being here. Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.