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Science and Technology Leadership in American Government: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments 1 Introduction SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND GOVERNMENT This report examines the federal government's capacity to attract highly qualified individuals to serve in the top-level executive positions involved in science and technology decisionmaking and program management. It addresses the problems encountered in recruiting and keeping talented experts, especially scientists and engineers, as presidential appointees and contains practical recommendations for improving the situation. The government of the United States today is deeply involved in important policy areas that have significant scientific and technical components. This involvement reflects the extraordinary expansion of scientific knowledge in recent decades, the technological opportunities presented by that increased knowledge, and the economic and social impacts of the rapid technological development that has resulted. The science and technology (S&T) activities of the federal government are vitally important for economic productivity and technological competitiveness, national security, an improved environment, better health, and many other purposes, including support of the national S&T enterprise itself. As scientific and technological knowledge continues to expand at a rapid rate, the government needs ever greater capacity to formulate, carry out, and monitor S&T policies and programs and their effects. The need for highly competent and dedicated scientists, engineers, and other experts in top policy and program management positions in the federal government has never been greater. Scientifically and technologically, the United States has led the world for most of this century. Whether in putting men on the Moon, stealth aircraft over Baghdad, or medical technology into hospitals, the United States has been in front. We have come to think of this lead as an American birthright. It is not. In the face of fast-paced technological
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Science and Technology Leadership in American Government: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments change and international competition, leadership cannot be taken for granted. It must be actively maintained. The success of American science and technology has been based, in no small measure, on a multitude of partnerships between the federal government and the rest of the country: especially research institutions, universities, and businesses. Such partnerships require cooperation and constant communication. They also require, with our current personnel arrangements, the movement of scientific and technical leaders between the federal government and research institutions, universities, and businesses. Leadership of the government's role in science and technology is exercised by executives in fewer than 100 positions. This report focuses on 78 or so presidentially appointed positions subject to Senate confirmation (called PAS positions).1 They include high-level posts in the Executive Office of the President and in the agencies and departments that support scientific and industrial research and development; manage large-scale defense, space, energy, health research, and environmental programs; and regulate activities with large technology components. Most of the top S&T positions are held by scientists or engineers, and the rest could be. It is these high-level officials who stand at the point where government intersects with science and technology. The nation needs exceptionally able scientists and engineers in these executive positions—to weigh the advice of technical specialists and to make key decisions on what should be done, lead the resulting programs, and evaluate the results. The government's capacity to perform these science and technology functions would be seriously affected by increasing difficulties in recruiting highly qualified personnel with the scientific and engineering training and experience needed in the top science and technology positions in the executive branch. Most of the research and development work in the United States takes place in the private sector, including more than three-quarters of the research and development (R&D) paid for with federal dollars. The 1 The rest are career and noncareer Senior Executive Service or equivalent positions, such as the Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control, and Associate Administrators of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Improving the Recruitment, Retention, and Utilization of Federal Scientists and Engineers, a companion report by a National Research Council committee, addresses the problems of recruiting and retaining career scientists and engineers, some of whom hold these top science and technology positions (NRC, 1992).
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Science and Technology Leadership in American Government: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments talent pool of scientific and engineering expertise available to lead the national R&D enterprise is therefore mostly in the private sector. Although the federal government has access to significant basic and applied research expertise in its own career service, it is particularly dependent on the business sector for the technological expertise needed to oversee large-scale engineering programs in the energy, space, and defense areas. Accordingly, since World War II, the federal government has relied for S&T leadership on the invigorating flow of highly qualified scientists and engineers from (and back to) the colleges and universities, national laboratories, high-technology firms, and other private organizations. This report documents some disturbing trends in recruitment and retention for presidentially appointed S&T positions. It is taking longer and longer to fill them, in part because of delays in the nomination and confirmation process, such as more detailed financial disclosure requirements and longer background investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). It also takes longer because more and more candidates turn down the opportunity to serve. Tenure is relatively short among those who do take positions. Recruitment and retention difficulties arise from several sources, which are addressed in this report. The panel is most concerned about recent changes in federal conflict-of-interest and procurement laws that threaten to curtail sharply, even virtually to halt, the movement of top scientific and technical personnel between the government and the private sector. This in turn would impair the flow of communication and cooperation between the government and the private sector that is essential for American technological excellence. We are now at the point where either these laws and regulations must be substantially changed to permit and encourage the best scientists and engineers to serve in the federal government, or we must adopt a different system—e.g., a very highly paid and well-educated elite corps of such officials who spend their entire careers in government service. This panel has strong doubts that such a new personnel system would work nearly as well as the system that has made American science and technology so successful. The smooth functioning of such a new personnel system would be an entirely uncertain proposition. But doing nothing to change the current system risks a clear, prompt, and substantial decline in the government's ability to deal with scientific and technical issues.
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Science and Technology Leadership in American Government: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments GOVERNANCE OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Not surprisingly, because of the scope and multiplicity of federal involvement in S&T policies and programs, many agencies in the federal government are headed by scientists and engineers or, in some cases where the head is not a scientist or engineer, deputies with scientific or engineering credentials. The departments in which these agencies are located typically have deputy secretaries and assistant secretaries overseeing the agencies with S&T-related missions, and many of these oversight positions are held by scientists and engineers. Most of these leadership posts are not held by career government scientists and engineers, but by substantive experts who have spent most of their careers in the private sector and who are serving for several years in presidentially appointed positions. They are not politicians in the sense that they have sought elective office, but they are politically appointed by an elected official, namely, the President. What Are the Jobs? Although no list of top federal S&T positions can be exact, this panel identified some 78 S&T executive leadership positions that are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate (see Appendix B).2 The Council for Excellence in Government (CEG) recently profiled what it considers the 60 "toughest" S&T-intensive jobs in Washington (Trattner, 1992), and the 50 executive branch positions covered in the CEG book are included in both lists (Appendix B compares the two lists). Some of the top jobs in the federal government that call for scientific and technical expertise and experience are leadership positions in mission agencies that conduct or apply R&D or both, or support R&D in the private sector through grants and contracts. Some of these are in independent agencies—e.g., the Director and Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation and the Administrator and Deputy Admin 2 The Director of the National Cancer Institute is appointed by the president without Senate confirmation, but is included here. As noted earlier, some important S&T-related positions are in the Senior Executive Service and do not have to go through the presidential appointment process, although they are generally subject to the same broad conflict-of-interest and postemployment provisions.
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Science and Technology Leadership in American Government: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments istrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Others are in the major departments—e.g., Director of the National Institutes of Health in Health and Human Services; Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Under Secretary/Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Under Secretary of Technology in Commerce; the Director of the Geological Survey in Interior; and the Director of the Office of Energy Research in Energy. Another set of key federal S&T positions includes the head, top deputy, or commissioner positions in agencies with regulatory missions that rely heavily on S&T. Examples include the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Others head statistical agencies, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of the Census, National Center for Health Statistics, Center for Education Statistics, and Bureau of Justice Statistics. There are many under secretary and assistant secretary positions overseeing S&T activities in the large departments, for example, the Under Secretary for Acquisition in the Department of Defense, the Assistant Secretary for Health in the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Assistant Secretaries for Water and Science and for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks at the Interior Department. The Directors of Defense Research and Engineering and of Energy Research are expected to play central roles in policy development and administration in their departments, Defense and Energy, respectively. There are several key S&T positions in the Executive Office of the President, including the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, who heads the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the four associate directors of OSTP, and the Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality. Several associate directors of the Office of Management and Budget who hold political SES positions have important S&T oversight responsibilities (for example, for natural resources, national security, and human resources). This diverse set of jobs has in common an understanding that they are primarily technical in nature, even though most incumbents are politically appointed. It is therefore traditional that those holding most such positions should have relevant scientific or technical expertise and experience. For example, the Director of Defense Research and Engineering has always been an engineer with a background in weapons development. The Director of NIH is always a leading biomedical researcher with a Ph.D. or M.D. or both. The Director of Energy
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Science and Technology Leadership in American Government: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments Research is usually a physicist or chemist with a distinguished research record. In other cases, scientific or technical credentials are not traditional but could be beneficial—e.g., Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who is almost always a lawyer. Who Holds These Positions? The CEG collected biographical information on the incumbents of its "Science 60" (actually, 62). An examination of the 45 Senate-confirmed presidential appointments among the 62 shows that about two-thirds received their highest degree in science (including six M.D.'s) or engineering, with three times as many scientists as engineers in the sample. About one in five is a lawyer. The remainder includes several appointees with social science degrees. The proportion holding advanced degrees is striking, indicating the level of expertise called for in these positions. About nine in ten have an advanced degree. Two-thirds hold a doctorate (not counting seven with J.D.'s). Half of the 6 engineers hold Ph.D.'s. The career patterns are more complicated. Only about half the incumbents moved directly from the private sector into their current position, as would be predicted by a simple in-and-out model. Of these, about a third came from the business sector and another third came fresh from the academic sector. About one in five came from a "think tank." Only two came from the congressional staff, and one moved from the state and local government sector. The other half moved to their current position from within government, most from within the same department or agency. However, very few have spent all or even most of their careers in the federal government. The high percentage of appointments of individuals already within the government is probably caused in part by two factors: first, the opportunity for the current administration to promote individuals originally recruited from the outside by the previous administration of the same party, and second, the increasing difficulty in recruiting from the outside that this report is concerned with. Incumbents have already paid most of the costs involved in accepting a PAS position, and it is relatively easier to recruit them than outsiders for higher positions. An analysis of preappointment employment history underscores the intersectoral mobility of this group. Only a few had worked in just one sector before coming to Washington. In fact, most of them (about three-quarters) had previous experience in government, most often in the same
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Science and Technology Leadership in American Government: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments agency they now help to lead. Overall, about a quarter of the current appointees have past business experience, and about a third have held a university position at some point. About a fifth have worked in the think tank/consulting sector. This brief analysis of the presidentially appointed positions in the CEG sample of top federal S&T policy and management positions indicates that they are typically held by individuals with advanced scientific, technical, or other professional degrees and backgrounds. As is characteristic of presidentially appointed jobs in the United States generally, many of these positions are held by "in-and-outers," highly qualified individuals who come into the federal government for a few years from successful careers outside the federal government—in business, academia, and the nonprofit sector—to apply their expertise and experience to the government's work, and then leave.3 Most have already served in the federal government at some point. PROBLEMS Since most of the government's R&D work is carried out in the academic and industrial sectors or involves regulating high-technology businesses, this in-and-out system of executive leadership has helped make it possible for the government to apply up-to-date S&T expertise to policymaking and program management. This interchange between the government and the academic and industrial sectors has been a critical factor in the nation's scientific and technological leadership, and it should be carefully nurtured. Instead, a series of factors are making it harder and harder to recruit highly qualified scientists and engineers and medical experts from the private sector for top government leadership positions. The factors cited most often include: More stringent and confusing postgovernment employment restrictions; 3 The in-and-out system of leadership change in the U.S. government is analyzed and compared with the government leadership systems in Europe and Canada in Mackenzie (1987) and Smith (1984).
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Science and Technology Leadership in American Government: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments The longer, more burdensome, and more intrusive nomination and Senate confirmation process; Stricter and more costly conflict-of-interest provisions; More detailed requirements for public financial disclosure; Pay that is not competitive with comparable positions in the private and nonprofit sectors; The high costs of moving to and living in Washington; Increased public scrutiny of one's personal life; Decreased capacity of government to carry out effective programs; and Lower public esteem for and prestige of public service. Although these factors may affect all potential candidates for presidential appointments to some degree, they can have a differential impact on the government's ability to attract researchers from academia and industry and managers with technical backgrounds from industry. Government service does not usually further the careers of practicing scientists and engineers or help the career prospects of corporate executives. The government may attract academic scientists, engineers, and health professionals who are ready to switch into administration, but it faces real problems in recruiting midcareer corporate executives for whom a leave of absence is a threat to further advancement. In many cases, corporate executives with scientific and engineering backgrounds are the most knowledgeable about the policies and programs the government manages or oversees—for example, in the defense, energy, and space sectors and also in emerging areas such as biotechnology. As a result of factors such as those listed above, the time it takes to fill key S&T leadership positions has been increasing. The average time it takes new administrations to fill presidentially appointed positions has been increasing steadily from administration to administration. The average time from inauguration to confirmation was 2.4 months in the Kennedy administration, 5.3 months in the Reagan administration, and more than 8 months in the Bush administration (Mackenzie, 1990:30). It is taking even longer to fill the S&T positions than non-S&T posi-
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Science and Technology Leadership in American Government: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments tions. For example, it took the new Bush administration an average of nine months to fill key S&T positions, up from six months in the previous administration (compared with eight and five months respectively for non-S&T positions) (see Table 1-1). Some critical positions have taken even longer, for example, the Director of the Office of Energy Research (22 months), the Director of the National Institutes of Health (18 months), and the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (12 months). This lag in filling positions has a significant and harmful effect on the government's ability to manage ongoing programs and to undertake S&T-based initiatives. Table 1 Average length of time to fill S&T-related vs. other (non-S&T) PAS positions in recent administrations (in months) Administration PAS Job Type Carter Reagan Bush S&T-Related Positionsa 4.77 6.24 9.14 (n=13) (n=17) (n=29) Other, Non-S&T Positionsb 4.54 5.22 8.03 (n=164) (n=195) (n=273) a S&T-related positions were defined as any of the PAS positions profiled by the Council for Excellence in Government (CEG) for which there were data. b All other PAS positions. SOURCE: Calculated from data collected for Mackenzie (1990), using CEG categories (Trattner, 1992). NOTE: The analysis probably understates the time it took to fill S&T positions in the current administration, because it assumes that all positions were filled as of January 1, 1990, the time when the data was collected. However, 9 of the 29 S&T positions (31 percent) were unfilled (compared with 52, or 19 percent, of the 273 non-S&T positions).
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Science and Technology Leadership in American Government: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments It is not only taking longer to fill key positions; it is also becoming harder to recruit top candidates. It is impossible to verify the increasing rate of turndowns because most candidates drop out before a formal job offer is made, but panel members familiar with recent openings in the defense, energy, and health areas know of cases where it was necessary to go to the tenth, twentieth, and even the thirtieth name on a list of desirable candidates. While some outstanding appointments were nevertheless made, the reluctance of the most desirable candidates is disturbing. High turnover is a related concern. The CEG study found that average tenure in 54 top S&T positions in the executive branch has been 2.5 years (including those holding a position on an acting basis while a new candidate was being recruited and confirmed) (Trattner, 1992:5). Turnover is particularly high in certain areas; the CEG study cited the Environmental Protection Agency, parts of the Energy Department, the Consumer Products Safety Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration. The Defense Department has had four Under Secretaries for Acquisition since the position was created in 1987. This situation is troubling because excellence, continuity, and stability are especially needed in science and technology programs. CONSEQUENCES One of the most difficult challenges facing modern government is to make decisions about complex matters that take into account the constantly evolving scientific knowledge and technological changes that occur by and large outside the government itself. To meet this challenge, the nation cannot rely on generalists alone, and in fact, we have developed a tradition of recruiting highly trained individuals to fill key S&T leadership positions in the government. If we fail to attract excellent people to these positions, the quality of policymaking will suffer. The panel concluded—after examining the record, reviewing reports, and conferring with government recruiting officials and with current and past incumbents of S&T-related positions—that there is considerable evidence of increasing difficulty in recruiting and keeping the highly qualified appointees the government needs to serve in S&T leadership positions. We are very concerned by this deterioration in the government's capacity to fill its top S&T-related positions. It has a significant and harmful effect on the government's
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Science and Technology Leadership in American Government: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments ability to manage ongoing programs and to undertake new initiatives. If the situation continues, the government's ability to make key decisions in the face of rapid scientific and technological change—and to design, carry out, and evaluate effective and responsive programs—will be very seriously affected. The nation can ill afford the consequences of leaving unattended this problem of executive recruitment. SOLUTIONS What can be done? Staffing an administration is one of the most important responsibilities of a President. The abilities and energy of the President's appointees in top positions in the executive branch are key determinants of policymaking and policy execution. This is especially true for S&T positions, where current expertise is needed to deal with a fast-changing scientific and technological environment. As a nation, we are facing a serious problem with recruiting and retaining top government executives, a problem that has been accumulating steadily for several decades and promises to worsen. The long-term nature of this erosion of governmental capacity led the recent National Commission on the Public Service (Volcker Commission) to call it a ''quiet crisis'' (1989a). The multiple and incremental causes of the problem call for multiple and steady responses on several fronts. The panel focused on three strategies for improving the government's ability to attract the talent it needs for top positions in which science and technology policies are developed and carried out: Reducing the hurdles of the appointment process and the disincentives to government service; Expanding the pool of potential talent by improving the White House's outreach to the science and engineering community and using more effective techniques for recruiting leading scientists and engineers; and Restructuring certain positions to make them more attractive to scientists and engineers.
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