A touch of geekiness lifts the White House

When Iranian officials added Ali Salehi, the chief of their atomic weapons program, to the team of negotiators this year, the State Department wisely tapped a brainy counterpart: Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a physicist and former MIT professor.

As Secretary of State John Kerry told The Globe’s Matt Viser, the partnership helped resolve key issues in terms of research and development. Moniz and Salehi bonded immediately. “If they were on an online dating site, they probably would have been matched together,” an aide told Viser. Now that the deal has been hammered out, Moniz remains an important voice, a scientist who can unpack the technical details of centrifuges and plutonium and can authoritatively answer questions from the public and from Congress.

Moniz’s role is only the latest example of a groundbreaking initiative that President Obama doesn’t get much credit for: adding science and engineering expertise to almost every corner of his administration. Twenty current or former high-ranking administration officials hold graduate degrees in science or engineering, according to a recent tally. The bench is deep: expertise ranges from Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who holds a PhD in theoretical physics, to Willie May, the undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology, who holds a doctorate in analytical chemistry.


Obama himself seems to have caught the fever, as well. Looking into the camera on a webcast video as he prepares for a meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST), the president says he loves “hanging out with scientists.” And he has been known to tweet enthusiastically @Potus about NASA’s New Horizon mission and the breathtaking “blue marble” photo of Earth.

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To be sure, scientists trained in the rarified environment of elite academic centers and research institutes have not always been an unalloyed success when thrust into the cauldron of Beltway politics. Steven Chu, who holds a PhD in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, was Moniz’s predecessor in the Department of Energy but foundered over criticism of loan guarantees to the failed solar energy company Solyndra. And Jane Lubchenco, a deeply credentialed former leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was assailed for her handling of the BP oil spill and fishing limits.

But history also shows that science needs to be shielded from politics, particularly if advisers take positions that don’t align with political goals. In January of 1973, President Richard Nixon disbanded the President’s Science Advisory Committee after a disputed report on supersonic air transport. The current incarnation of PCAST was chartered by another Republican, President George H.W. Bush.

Overall, the scientists and engineers in the administration serve as an important bridge for politicians and policy makers, helping them understand the principles that underpin issues ranging from nanotechnology to big data and privacy to combating antibiotic resistance.

There are ample reasons to protect the free flow of science and engineering knowledge at the highest levels of government. Obama’s efforts, which have not abated during his second term, set a powerful example for future administrations.