Reporting on the Jay Keyworth visit

February 24th, 2006

Posted by: admin

It’s a little stale at this point, I realize, but I wanted to give a brief report from our visit with Dr. George Keyworth, science advisor to President Reagan from 1981 -1986. Dr. Keyworth visited Boulder on Jan 31/Feb 1, the main event of which was a public lecture. I went to Dr. Keyworth’s talk and interacted with him in a few other venues throughout his visit and here are some of the take-home messages as I heard them.

  • As national security is the most important issue facing any president, science advisors who are not involved closely in national security issues are not as relevant to the White House decision making process. Dr. Keyworth had multiple security clearances from his long tenure at Los Alamos, which gave him access to national security information and thus made him relevant to a president dealing with the Cold War.

    To illustrate what happens when a science advisor is not directly involved in national security issues, Dr. Keyworth pointed to an exchange with a former Vice President. The VP asked something to the effect of, “Who was science advisor when we were in?” Keyworth’s take-home message was that this long-serving advisor was unknown because he wasn’t working on the top priority for the administration.

  • Dr. Keyworth made clear his Libertarian inclinations and called President Reagan a “true Libertarian.” Arising from these views were a few observations and preferences, the most strident of which was:

    -The government does well when it is a consumer and not when it is a producer of technology.

    NASA illustrates this well. In the early days of the space station, nothing in NASA’s rationale for its construction was significant or justifiable. NASA proposed a space lab for creating protein crystals in microgravity, and other such, but neither NASA nor the American government needed or needs protein crystals. [And the ISS floats along, irrelevant as ever....]

    - The one thing that government can do right is to fund basic research.

  • People here question the effectiveness of the “linear model” (science $$ into a black box leads to economic benefits for the nation). But Dr. Keyworth was adamant that Vannevar Bush’s ideas on funding basic research are still very important and relevant and that history shows the linear model to be right on.
  • There is a widespread consensus that we are declining rapidly in basic research funding and capability. Dr. Keyworth strongly backed up the message of Rising Above The Gathering Storm and discussed the purpose of basic research as a training ground of scientists. Roger should have a long post on this in the near future….
  • Strong views on NASA, including, “NASA is rotten to the core.” The U.S. does not have a civil space policy, hasn’t had one since Apollo, and out of this is a lack of a existence rationale for NASA.
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