The President’s Science Advisor Should Be a Full Member of the National Security Council and Its Principals Committee

December 11, 2020
4882204097_4a03e146fb_h (1)

In his April 2018 testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis identified rapid technological changes, including “developments in advanced computing, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics, miniaturization, additive manufacturing, directed energy, and hypersonics,” as “the very technologies that ensure we will be able to fight and win wars of the future.” He warned the committee that “ultimately, these technologies will change the character of war.”

Yet this cluster of technologies, however important, represents only one face of the rapidly evolving scientific and technological landscape confronting the United States in the coming decade. Many other pressing national and international security threats have a major scientific or technological component, and in many of these cases, the pace of scientific and technical advance is so dynamic that it is difficult to keep abreast of the field. Yet an accurate scientific and technical understanding may play a central role, and in some cases a decisive one, in making accurate threat assessments or in choosing the best course of action for the United States. We argue that to help ensure that this is the case, the president’s science advisor should be made a member of both the National Security Council (NSC) and the Principals Committee. In previous administrations, the science advisor has been neither, despite sometimes having been invited to participate in specific meetings. But President-elect Joe Biden can choose to designate the science advisor as a full member of the NSC and of its Principals Committee in the new administration’s first presidential policy directive, which traditionally establishes the membership and structure of the NSC.

Why the Science Advisor Is Needed on the National Security Council’s Principals Committee

Even a short list of pressing national security threats with a dynamic scientific or technological component is a long list.

Although it had been clear for decades, this list now obviously includes naturally occurring pandemics, including prospects for rapid improvements in surveillance and response capabilities driven by biotechnology. It also includes potential applications of biotechnology, and especially the new CRISPR technology, to bioweapons and bioterrorism.

It includes climate change and scientists’ rapidly evolving understanding of the positive feedbacks and widespread security implications this entails, including opening of the Arctic ice, hurricane frequency and strength, and climate-driven migration.

It includes quantum computing and its implications for decryption and computational power more generally, as well as communications based on quantum entanglement, as demonstrated by the Chinese Micius satellite.



Even without quantum computing, numerical power and machine learning are now so effective that AI increasingly permeates society, not only in warfighting but in intelligence, persistent surveillance, autonomous machines, and consequent short- and long-term risks. And even without AI, the country faces enormous challenges from cyber operations, including social media and elections manipulation.

The list also includes the rapidly shifting satellite constellation, space weapons, and space debris landscape and the incorporation of hypersonic weapons and nuclear weapons-carrying drones into major and even lesser powers’ arsenals.

And it includes long-standing issues such as proliferating and evolving technologies for the enrichment of uranium; claims for the violation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by U.S. adversaries; assessments of anti-ballistic missile technologies and countermeasures; and nuclear force reliability, vulnerability, and modernization.

And finally, it includes the myriad ways these technologies may interact to increase the prospects for “normal” accidents or inadvertent escalation, including escalation to nuclear weapons use.

The president’s science advisor, if correctly positioned and given the proper staff support, could ensure that the technical aspects of these issues, and many others, are recognized, critically assessed, and appropriately brought to bear at the highest levels of decision-making in the U.S. government. The science advisor already has the rank to do so — the position’s proper title is “assistant to the president for science and technology” and so carries the same rank as that of the national security advisor (formally the assistant to the president for national security affairs). But to do so successfully the science advisor has to be in the room when the relevant decisions are being made. In practice, this requires the science advisor to be a full member of the NSC with a seat on its Principals Committee. Understanding why requires a brief examination of NSC history and structure.

National Security Council Membership and Structure

Although it retains its formal structure by statute, the membership of the NSC has changed many times since its inception. The amended National Security Act of 1947 sets the legally required minimum membership of the National Security Council: the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the secretary of energy, and the secretary of the treasury. In addition, the legislation gives the president the authority to designate “other officers of the United States Government” as members of the council. Typically, the first or second presidential policy directive (or “PPD,” the specific name given to these directives changes with each president) of a new administration sets the council’s full membership and then lays out the overall structure of the NSC staff and interagency process. A possible source of confusion for those outside the beltway comes from the shorthand practice in Washington of saying that this or that member of the White House staff is “on the NSC.” Usually, this just means that the individual serves on the staff of the assistant to the president for national security affairs, or on the “NSC staff.” The actual “NSC” itself is only about 10 people.

That same first presidential policy directive establishes the committee structure of the NSC. At the top of the pyramid always lies the NSC itself, which the president chairs, or absent the president, the cabinet-level Principals Committee. Into the Principals Committee flows those decisions that either cannot be resolved at a lower level of the interagency process or that are of such consequence that they must be taken at the principals level even if there is lower-level consensus. In the Barack Obama administration, the Principals Committee of the NSC (the “NSC/PC”) had, as its regular members — those necessarily allowed to participate in each meeting — the secretary of state, the secretary of the treasury, the secretary of defense, the attorney general, the secretary of energy, the secretary of homeland security, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the president’s chief of staff, the director of national intelligence, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. The national security advisor typically serves as chair.

Obama’s first policy directive, Presidential Policy Directive-1, designated that membership, then included language relevant to the science advisor:

The NSC/PC shall meet at the call of the National Security Advisor, in consultation with the members of the NSC/PC. The National Security Advisor shall determine the agenda in consultation with the other committee members. … When science and technology related issues are on the agenda, the NSC’s regular attendees will include the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

There are important drawbacks to this approach, as discussed below, but at least the science advisor could participate if the principals recognized a need for the relevant expertise.

The Donald Trump administration laid out the NSC membership in two national security presidential memoranda, National Security Presidential Memoranda-2 and National Security Presidential Memoranda-4. Neither of these mentions a science advisor, or the office of science and technology policy director, as playing any role within, or complementary to, the NSC structure.

Our recommendation is simply that the presidential policy directive laying out the NSC membership designate the assistant to the president for science and technology as a member of the NSC and as a regular member of the NSC Principals Committee. This guarantees that the science advisor will be always in the loop and a participant in every meeting that they view as relevant, rather than someone who is either altogether excluded (as in the Trump administration) or only participates by invitation (as in the Obama administration).

Even if the science advisor is a regular member of the Principals Committee, in order to be effective across the required range of scientific and technical issues, they will need the support of a considerable staff with the appropriate depth and breadth of expertise. That staff exists within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and reports to the science advisor provided that the science advisor is dual-hatted as the OSTP director. The OSTP is mandated by legislation, and its director must be approved by the Senate. In the Trump administration, the OSTP director was never given the rank of assistant to the president. But in the past, when a president has designated an assistant to the president for science and technology, that individual has always been named OSTP director as well.

Objections and Counterarguments

There are several objections to our recommendation, and we present — and rebut — them here.

Objection 1: NSC principals are already supported by their own scientific and technical staff, so participation by the science advisor would be superfluous.

There are two reasons that this argument is unconvincing. First, while it is true that other principals have sources within their departments or agencies for scientific and technical advice, even when this expertise is fully accessed, these principals will marshal that knowledge in support of the particular policy position taken by their agency. One role of the science advisor as an NSC principal would be to ensure that independent scientific and technical knowledge, including explicit reference to its uncertainties and potential risks, is brought to bear at the principals level. With respect to weapons of mass destruction, from the John F. Kennedy administration until well into the Bill Clinton administration, the director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, supported by a strong staff of scientists and engineers, played something of this role at the principals level. However, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was eliminated in 1997 as part of a deal between Sen. Jesse Helms and then-Sen. Biden to allow a floor vote on the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention. As a result, this independent source of technical input is no longer present. And in any case, the agency director’s purview was limited to arms issues. Those issues are just as vital today, but the scientific and technical agenda is now much broader.

Second, in the Obama administration, the director of national intelligence was a regular member of the Principals Committee — even though Departments of Defense, State, and Energy have their own intelligence agencies. Yet there is no claim that the director of national intelligence is superfluous on the NSC, presumably because the importance of intelligence independent of any one agency is recognized.

Objection 2: If the science advisor is truly needed, they can be asked to attend — there is, therefore, no need for them to be a regular member.

As we noted, this is the approach that was taken in the Obama administration’s NSC. But it has at least four drawbacks:

First, it may not be apparent to a nonscientist that there are important “science- and technology-related issues on the agenda.” Even at the principals level, you don’t necessarily know what you don’t know.

Second, there is always a natural bureaucratic reluctance to expand the number of people at the table — the additional voice might slow consensus or could even be opposed to one’s own point of view. So there is always the risk that the decision to invite the science advisor would be made for reasons that are not so much objective as bureaucratic. Anyone who has spent time in Washington is familiar with this kind of behavior.

Third, any participant who is present only by occasional invitation almost necessarily enters the room at a status disadvantage.

And, fourth and fundamentally, science and technology issues are now, and will be henceforth, simply foundational to many security issues. It would be far better for U.S. national security for the science advisor to be able to opt out of those meetings lacking a significant scientific or technical component rather than to have to gather back-channel information about the Principals Committee’s agenda and try to shoehorn their way into relevant meetings.

Objection 3: President-elect Biden has announced that former Secretary of State John Kerry has been appointed as his special presidential envoy for climate and that he will “sit on the National Security Council.” Therefore, either there is no need for the science advisor to be on the NSC or that need is less important than not overstuffing the NSC and rendering it unwieldy.

Both versions of this argument are unpersuasive. The array of scientific and technical issues of importance to the NSC goes far beyond climate, however crucial that topic is. And every president makes various choices for and additions to the NSC, including the climate envoy together with the science advisor hardly stretches the envelope beyond the range of past practice.

Objection 4: If the science advisor is also the director of OSTP, then because the OSTP director is a Senate-confirmed position (unlike, say, the national security advisor), the science advisor/OSTP director could be required to testify to Congress on NSC deliberations and issues that must remain privileged.

This is perhaps the most commonly heard objection to having the science advisor (as OSTP director) be a full member of the NSC and has even been cited in Congressional Research Service reports. But it is wrong for at least three reasons:

First, all of the cabinet secretaries serving on the NSC are also, of course, in Senate-confirmed positions.

Second, this objection did not prevent the Office of Management and Budget director from being designated, and serving, as a regular member of the NSC Principals Committee for the duration of both the Obama and Trump administrations. This membership was made explicit in each president’s policy directive establishing the NSC membership and structure. Yet the Office of Management and Budget director, like the OSTP director, must also be confirmed by the Senate. Therefore, the claim that a Senate-confirmed member of the Executive Office of the President cannot or should not serve on the NSC Principals Committee is simply wrong. To the contrary, this has routinely been the case for the Office of Management and Budget director, and having the OSTP director be a regular member of the NSC Principals Committee would therefore break no new ground.

Third, this objection is misguided as a matter of law. As two federal courts have now held, there is no absolute immunity from providing congressional testimony for presidential or cabinet staff at any level. It is true that memoranda by the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel have on occasion suggested as much (first in a memorandum to John Ehrlichman, then assistant to the president for domestic affairs in the Richard Nixon administration). However, the only federal courts to rule on the issue unmistakably denied the existence of absolute immunity from testimony when they asserted that the Office of Legal Counsel’s suggestion is “entirely unsupported by existing case law” and that “there is Supreme Court authority that is all but conclusive on this question and that powerfully suggests that such advisors do not enjoy absolute immunity.” There are unquestionably various privileges that may be asserted by executive branch officials to shield specific information from Congress — including the privilege to protect the confidentiality of documents or other information that reflects presidential decision-making and deliberations — but the assertion of such a privilege is balanced against legitimate congressional interests in oversight and investigation. The availability of that privilege to executive branch officials does not depend on whether or not they have been confirmed by the Senate but rather on whether they serve in “operational proximity” to the president, whatever their particular title or position.

Looking Ahead

It has long been true that many pressing national security challenges faced by the United States have powerful scientific and technological components, but with exponentiating technologies this is ever more apparent. It would now be as unwise to exclude the science advisor from the NSC as it would be to exclude the director of national intelligence. Relevant technical issues permeate even geopolitical topics that might superficially seem not to concern the science advisor, as the role of hypersonics, space, and AI in the Sino-American and U.S.-Russian relationships indicates. It is long past time for the president’s science advisor be a full member of the NSC and its Principals Committee.



Christopher Chyba is professor of astrophysical sciences and international affairs at Princeton University and director of the Ph.D. program in security studies at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. He has previously served on the staffs of the National Security Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy and on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Ethan Magistro is an undergraduate student in philosophy at Princeton University and has worked closely with Christopher Chyba on national security issues.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to the Principals Committee as the senior body of the NSC. The article now makes clear that the NSC proper, which the president chairs, is his or her senior advisory and decision-making group. The Principals Committee is the NSC’s senior (cabinet level) interagency committee.

Image: White House (Photo by Pete Souza)