Presenting Science Without Bias: A profile of Robert Ferguson

Published February 1, 2007

Robert Ferguson had a high-level job at a famous educational institution where he had proved himself for two decades … but he gave it up to start a new venture.

Unlike many entrepreneurs, Ferguson did not start a for-profit business. Like most entrepreneurs, however, he saw an unmet need and decided to fill it.

In Ferguson’s case, the unmet need was science information, and the institution was Congress.

After working on Capitol Hill for more than 25 years, which included stints as chief of staff for two members of Congress, Ferguson founded the Center for Science and Public Policy (CSPP) in 2003. His goal is to provide congressional staffers with unbiased scientific information on environmental issues that Congressmen need to make sound public policy decisions.

“I saw it as a basic need to educate policymakers,” said Ferguson.

Unexpected Career Turns

After spending four years in the Army in the late 1960s, Ferguson completed an undergraduate degree in history at Brigham Young University. After college he became a stock broker. Ferguson soon realized, however, that he wasn’t getting the professional fulfillment he desired as a stock broker.

In 1976, while working as a union carpenter–he was a member of the AFL-CIO–he volunteered on a congressional campaign for Dan Marriot of Utah. While working with Marriot, he met a recently elected congressman from upstate New York, Jack Kemp, who was in Utah on a family trip.

After talking politics, Kemp asked him why he wasn’t working in Washington. Ferguson thought it was a good question, and then headed to Washington.

Variety of Positions

He first worked with the House Republican Study Committee and then the Senate Policy Committee. Eventually he ended up on the staff of Jack Fields of Texas, where he held a variety of positions over a 16-year period, rising to chief of staff. While working for Fields, he earned a master’s degree in legislative affairs from George Washington University.

After Fields’ retirement from Congress, Ferguson became chief of staff for John Peterson, a member of Congress who represented a large rural district in northern Pennsylvania.

“It is while working for Fields and Peterson that I gave a lot of attention to the relationship between science and policy,” said Ferguson. Peterson was a member of the Agriculture Committee and the Resources Committee.

Bringing Information

In 2003 Ferguson left the Capitol to start CSPP. In his new role, he has returned to the Capitol many times, as the organization has sponsored presentations for Capitol Hill staff roughly eight to 12 times a year.

“There are quite a few environmental groups who bring scientists to the Hill, but CSPP is the only group that tries to bring in both sides,” said Ferguson.

One recent seminar presented by CSPP featured hurricane experts Chris Landsea of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Terry Emanuel of MIT, who gave differing views on whether global warming is having an impact on hurricanes.

The Landsea-Emanuel presentation responded to staffers’ need for scientific information in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “We put together a great deal of information about hurricanes and global warming following Katrina,” Ferguson noted.

Encouraging Debate

“My years of personal experience on Capitol Hill have convinced me that examination of the issues surrounding science and public policy is not a game of ‘taking sides,'” Ferguson explained. “If there is an error in one side of an argument, then it is important to know of that error, because that is the truth. In the case of global warming, the policy proposals being pushed have enormous science, social, economic, and political consequences.

“For example,” Ferguson added, “misdirected global warming policies will likely create a monstrous misallocation of resources. We could give housing and clean water to the entire world, and eliminate all major diseases, for just a fifth of what proposals such as the Kyoto Protocol and the British Stern Report might end up costing.”

Presenting Both Sides

Ferguson realizes that by presenting both sides of the global warming debate, he may be setting himself up for public scorn from some activist groups.

But it is his love for scientific truth–the very impulse that guided him to start a nonprofit organization rather than cashing in his Capitol Hill experience in the private sector–that gives him the strength to stand up to special-interest activist groups.

“It is my experience which guides my firm support of the proposition that skeptics and those who have the courage to support them are actually helpful in getting the science right,” Ferguson explained. “They do not, as some improperly suggest, ‘obfuscate’ the issue: They assist in clarifying it by challenging weaknesses in the ‘consensus’ argument, and they compel necessary corrections.”

Being faithful to science while resisting the urge to give in to political pressures has its advantages, he notes. “As our reputation has grown, we have scientists contacting us,” Ferguson said.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College.

For more information …

Center for Science and Public Policy,