Remembering Jack Gibbons, The Rarest Of U.S. Science Advisors

CREDIT: Clinton Presidential Library

John H. (Jack) Gibbons — renowned physicist, former presidential science advisor, and lifelong energy efficiency champion — died on July 17 at the age of 86. He was the rarest of scientists, and, I believe, the only person in U.S. history to be the chief science and technology advisor to both Congress (1979-1992) and then the White House (1993-1998).

The Gingrich Congress made it impossible for anybody to match that achievement in 1995 when they shut down the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which Jack had previously directed for over a decade.

Former Vice President Al Gore worked with OTA when he was in Congress, and “had the privilege of working even more closely with” Gibbons when they were both at the White House. “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,” Gore told ClimateProgress in a statement. “He was utterly unique and irreplaceable.”

Gibbons was a friend and colleague. My time at the Department of Energy overlapped with his at the White House. He wrote the Preface for my 2004 book, “The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate.” One of his lines is all too prescient:

Given our current choices and policies, I am drawn to the observation that “mankind would rather commit suicide than learn arithmetic.”

Gibbons was a very prescient scientist. He had a prestigious career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory starting in 1954, ultimately becoming “the group leader in nuclear geophysics/astrophysics.”

Then in the late 1960s — years before the first oil shock woke everyone up to the need for a better energy policy — he “pioneered studies on how to use technology to conserve energy and minimize the environmental impacts of energy production and consumption.” He became the lab’s director of environmental programs in 1969.

In 1973 Gibbons was named the first Director of the Federal Office of Energy Conservation. He was a life-long champion of this most important and virtually limitless but most neglected source of cheap, pollution-free energy. In 2007, he won the Alliance to Save Energy’s first “lifetime achievement in energy efficiency” award — one of many, many awards he won during his long career.

In 1979 Gibbons was picked to direct the bipartisan U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, a position he held for 13 years. During his time, the OTA routinely produced reports on energy, the environment, health, and national security of such high quality that they became the “Bible” or “benchmark” study in the field.

In 1993, he became Bill Clinton’s science advisor and and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. I asked the current occupant of that position, John Holdren, to comment on Gibbons’ legacy:

His influence in the Clinton White House was evident in the Administration’s signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (which, alas, the Senate has never ratified, even though the United States has not conducted a nuclear-explosive test since 1992); in increased cooperation with the former Soviet Union to keep nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands; in ramped-up government activity to address global climate change; in new initiatives in biomedical research; and much more.

Gibbons was instrumental in the launch of the interagency Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles with U.S. automakers. That initiative was a major factor in motivating Toyota to develop its breakthrough hybrid vehicle, the Prius, ultimately leading to a host of U.S. hybrid vehicles.

Vice President Gore explains that “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.”

Holdren adds that Gibbons was “a generous mentor (to me and many others); a superb motivator and manager of talented teams of colleagues; a caring friend; and just a remarkably unflappable, upbeat, good-hearted human being, with an unfailing sense of humor that kept all around him laughing with him and at ourselves. I will miss him terribly.” As will I and a great many others.

His family notes, “Donations in his honor and memory will be gratefully accepted by The Union of Concerned Scientists, Population Action International, and the Sierra Club.”