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Image of network plug NSB Chair Hackerman - NSF Acting Director Atkinson
The National Science Board - A History in Highlights, 1950-2000
Table of Contents | Preface | Acknowledgements | Former Members | Exec Secretaries/Officers | Timeline

Supporting the Director as Science Advisor

In January 1973, simmering tensions between the Nixon White House and the university scientific community came to a boil. Press leaks showing that members of the PSAC were critical of the SST and ABM projects angered President Nixon; PSAC's abolition was imminent. Seeing the writing on the wall, the President's Science Advisor, Edward E. David Jr., formerly of Bell Laboratories, had resigned on January 2. Nixon also planned to dismantle the Office of Science and Technology.

In the midst of this turmoil, William O. Baker, a former Board member, suggested to Nixon that he could ask the Director of NSF to serve simultaneously as his science advisor, since the NSF Act gave the Foundation the job of advising on national policy and evaluating government research programs. When Treasury Secretary George P. Shultz, in his capacity as a special assistant to the President, asked Stever to become science advisor, Stever expressed interest, saying he wanted to consult with the Board.

Shultz told Stever not to tell the Board. Stever, nonetheless, arranged for Shultz himself to brief the Board at its next regular meeting, days away. Recognizing that the new arrangement was now perhaps the only way the President had of receiving science-related national policy advice, the Board voted to assist Stever in his new, second role.

The Board created a National Science Policy Subcommittee, which discussed publishing white papers or issuing policy statements on major subjects. The subcommittee hoped the Board could serve as an "early warning system" for the Science Advisor about upcoming issues of importance, and be available for "informal and confidential consultation." The subcommittee was succeeded by the Committee on National Science Policy, headed by geologist Frank Press of MIT. At the same time, the Board uncovered a number of never-released PSAC papers that had been written but not cleared by the White House. Stever and the Board released some of the PSAC papers on their own, such as "Chemicals and Health," one of the few authoritative warnings at the time that some synthetic chemicals could be harmful to humans.

To assist Stever, in 1973 the Board helped to create two NSF offices-for science policy and for energy policy. The latter was very active when the oil embargo hit later that year, raising questions about the Nation's energy research priorities. Several RANN projects dealing with energy proved their worth at this time.

But Watergate was enmeshing the Nixon presidency. As it became clear that President Nixon might be impeached or resign, some in Congress and the science world met with Vice President Gerald R. Ford, the Michigan congressman appointed to the vice presidency in 1973. Ford agreed that the Foundation was not the right place for the science advisor. When Ford became President, Stever and the Board worked with his aides on legislation that succeeded in returning the science advisor to a stronger position within the White House. On October 1, 1976, Stever resigned as NSF Director to become Ford's full-time science advisor, signaling a thaw in relations between the White House and the science community.

At one point, Stever showed President Ford a chart from NSF's Science Indicators highlighting Japan and Europe's rising R & D compared to the sinking trend in the U.S. Stever believes that "from that point, he [Ford] began to think about" reversing the declining federal investment in research.

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