The first time I spoke with Jack Gibbons a decade ago, I’m afraid that I didn’t have enough of an appreciation of what he had accomplished. I was fairly new to the Union of Concerned Scientists and was told he might have some ideas for protecting government scientists from political interference in their work. Throughout the course of that first conversation, his advice was quite sound, but the history of the use of science in policy making that he gave me, combined with the long list of names he gave me whom I should contact, suggested that he would be a great person to have in our corner.
And boy, was he great. Over the ensuing years, we had a number of conversations, and I learned something from each one. He was sweet and unassuming, yet quick of wit and always willing to share his perspective. He helped shape our strategy and opened numerous doors.
I was saddened to learn of Jack’s passing on July 17, 2015, and have appreciated the many tributes that have been published since in his honor, including an obituary in the Washington Post, a tribute from Dr. Neal Lane (who succeeded Jack as science advisor) in the Houston Chronicle, a statement by Al Gore, a post on the White House blog, and a remembrance from Joe Romm of Think Progress.
Jack was one of the first signers of the 2004 Scientist Statement on Scientific Integrity, a statement from 62 prominent scientists expressing concern about the misrepresentation of science and the censorship of scientists, and calling on the Bush administration to restore scientific integrity to federal policy making. The statement helped to put the issue of political interference in science on the public agenda and launch a movement to create strong scientific integrity standards within government.
By 2004, Jack had extensive experience with science advice to the federal government. He first came to Washington in 1973 from Tennessee to serve as the inaugural director of the Federal Office of Energy Conservation. Two years later, he returned back to Tennessee, only to be summoned back to the capital to lead the now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) for more than a decade.
This was perhaps his most impressive accomplishment. OTA, which was dismantled in 1995, conducted analyses upon request from congressional committees with support from both major parties. Final reports were reviewed and approved by a bipartisan board–meaning that both parties felt ownership over them. The goal was to be policy relevant, not policy prescriptive. The OTA helped Congress evaluate different proposals before, in Jack’s words, “their commitment becomes so poured in concrete that they can’t reverse themselves.”
Rosina Bierbaum, who served as interim director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and worked with Jack at OTA, summarized well his impact at the OTA:
“Gentleman Jack” as many called him, was humble, witty, and charismatic. It was impossible not to be charmed by him and he defused many a contentious argument with his gentle folksy style. But that belied a keen intellect and his expansive scientific and technical prowess. As the head of OTA and then OSTP, he believed his main job was to ‘speak truth to power’. He did it effectively, and didn’t mince words.
Jack was extraordinarily successful in keeping the Congress up to date on the possible impacts of their legislative choices from a science and technological viewpoint while head of the late great Office of Technology Assessment. Reports produced under Jack’s leadership shaped bipartisan legislation and elevated the level of scientific discourse so that both sides of a political issue would argue with the same body of science as the basis. Jack was a consummate communicator, and felt the analysis was only half of the job; the translation of the science and technical information into ‘usable information’ often took as long to get right.
For years after the unfortunate demise of OTA, Jack Gibbons’ presence in a Congressional hearing room – even as an observer – would lead to Members’ laments about the loss of that ‘think tank’ agency that would probe the future consequences of decisions made today.
After OTA, Jack wasn’t done. In 1993, he became President Clinton’s science adviser, serving for five years. He told the University of Colorado that the fact that he was one of Clinton’s first appointments gave him the ability to significantly shape the development of Clinton’s science and technology strategy and staff. In that position, he often recognized and spoke against the politicization and marginalization of science by proposals in Congress.
I asked Neal Lane, who served as Clinton’s science adviser after Jack, for his thoughts. He wrote:
“Jack Gibbons was a good friend and wise mentor in the ways of Washington. He made it possible for me to join the Clinton Administration as NSF Director, and his wise counsel and influence in the White House allowed me to stay out of trouble, at least most of the time.
When I was privileged to succeed him as President Clinton’s science advisor, most likely as a result of Jack’s support, I found his shoes far too big to fill. That said, the extraordinary team he had recruited to OSTP allowed the office to continue its well-deserved reputation for excellence in everything it did to insure that the president always had the best advice on matters of science and technology.
Jack was a wonderful human being and remarkably unpretentious, given the considerable influence he had in forming the Clinton Administration’s policies in all aspects of science and technology policy. Jack was one of the kindest and most generous people I have known. I shall always be grateful for all he did for me and will miss his wise counsel, good humor and warmth.”
Jack was the type of person you wanted in Washington: a man who was able to connect with people of varying ideologies and backgrounds, and who always put a greater purpose before himself. He earned the trust of presidents and vice presidents, of members of Congress, and of many scientists. When Jack spoke, people took him seriously.
His passing has drawn reflections from a wide number of people with whom he worked, including former Vice President Al Gore, who knew Jack from his days at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In a statement, Gore wrote:
Jack had a rare and uncanny ability to look at critical large-scale issues affecting our planet through scientific, technological, social and ethical lenses and present a definitive overview to help policy makers better address such issues and better anticipate future problems. It was Jack’s optimism and imagination that did so much to help the United States face the difficult issues of our time, including the climate crisis.
I am told that Jack used the following Adlai Stevenson quote frequently: “Man is a strange animal. He generally cannot read the handwriting on the wall until his back is up against it.” With the strong scientific institutions that Jack supported, helped build, and championed, we are better prepared to anticipate that handwriting.
A memorial service will be held on September 19, 2015 at 2:00 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church in The Plains, Virginia. Those of us at UCS who were fortunate enough to know Jack are incredibly honored that our organization was one of three chosen to receive contributions in his honor (contribute to UCS here; the other two organizations are Population Action International and the Sierra Club). His extensive record of public service has contributed directly to a healthier environment and a safer world. Our hearts go out to his family and friends and thank them for allowing Jack to share so much of his personality, knowledge, and talents with all of us.
His extensive record of public service has contributed directly to a healthier environment and a safer world. Our hearts go out to his family and friends and thank them for allowing Jack to share so much of his personality, knowledge, and talents with all of us.
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