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First Person: Mary L. Good

Mary L. Good at LSU.

Dr. Mary L. Good with ESCA spectrometer, Louisiana State University, year unknown. Good was working on coatings and catalysts for car exhaust systems. She later became an scientific advisor to 4 consecutive U.S. presidents.

Mary L. Good, who trained as a physical inorganic chemist, has worn many hats throughout her lengthy and distinguished scientific career.  A researcher, teacher, and winner of numerous awards including the Priestley Medal, Good never expected to put her skills to use in politics. But beginning in 1980, Good worked as an advisor to multiple presidents, both Republican and Democrat, demonstrating that the value of scientific training can be a rare point of agreement in Washington. 

Serving under Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, Good’s experiences as an advocate for science in the political arena gave her perspective on both public understanding and funding of science during a crucial time. In her 1998 oral history, conducted by CHF, Good said:

When you think about it, the ending of the Cold War says – and as it has now been borne out – that the Defense Department support of R&D is going to continue to diminish. Indeed, our biggest problem in research support…is that we’ve lost the fundamental kind of work that was supported by defense….That’s why you have this disparity now between NIH, which continues to get funded because there’s good rapport in the Congress for it, at the same time you have reduced support for engineering and the physical sciences.

The Cold War influenced Good’s own education and career, providing not only the funding but much of the public rationale for research in the engineering and physical sciences. As the tensions of the 50s and 60s eased, part of her job as a political science advisor was to figure out how to convince both the government and the public to continue their support. In her talks, lectures, and publications, Good provided huge but everyday examples. “Things like the Internet wouldn’t exist today without the support that came out of defense and NSF,” she argued. “Things that we take for granted were really nurtured with government money early on.”

The consequences of not paying attention to scientific funding and research can be dire.  Regardless of political affiliation, Good wants people “to understand the fact that technology today, and by definition the science that supports it, really is the basis on which you’re going to compete in the next century. Those countries that have it will compete. Those that don’t won’t. It’s really not very complex.”

"First Person,” written by staff from the Oral History Program, highlights one of CHF's over 400 oral histories each month.

Posted In: History | Policy

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