The security, economic well-being, and safety and health of the United States depend on the strength and vitality of the nation’s science and technology (S&T) enterprise. Almost every aspect of modern public policy is touched by S&T, including those involving national security, economic development, health care, the environment, education, energy, and natural resources. The US research enterprise is the largest in the world and leads in innovation in many fields. For these reasons, it is critical to attract scientists and engineers into the highest levels of public service, either as political appointees in top leadership positions or as members of the many advisory committees providing scientific and technical advice to executive agencies.
In 2004, an ad hoc committee of the National Academies Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy was charged with preparing this third report examining the most senior S&T appointments to federal government positions and updating the accompanying list of the most urgent S&T presidential appointments. Sufficient changes have occurred since the National Academies 2000 report on presidential appointments—including the 2001 terrorist attacks, the anthrax deaths, the reorganization of homeland-security activities in the federal government, new developments in S&T, and concerns about the politicization of S&T decision making and advice—to warrant this new edition. In contrast with previous reports on the subject, this one covers not only presidential appointments to top S&T leadership positions but
also the appointment of scientists, engineers, and health professionals to serve on federal advisory committees that focus on science-based policy or on the review of research proposals. The committee recognizes that other areas of federal responsibility are as important as S&T, but S&T appointments are the only ones within its purview. This summary presents the committee’s recommendations on the two major topics in its charge: presidential S&T appointments and appointments of scientists and engineers to federal advisory committees.
PRESIDENTIAL SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY APPOINTMENTS
Shortly after the election, the President or President-elect should identify a candidate for the position of Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (APST) to provide advice, including suggesting and recruiting other science and technology presidential appointees. After inauguration, the president should promptly both appoint this person as APST and indicate the intent to nominate him or her as the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
Selection of a confidential adviser on S&T immediately after the election, if one is not already in place, is essential to ensure that assistance is available to the incoming president in identifying the best candidates for key S&T appointments and to provide advice in the event of a crisis. That person should be named the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (APST) immediately after the inauguration so that he or she will have the stature that the S&T portfolio warrants.
Ideally, the APST will have credibility and the respect of the S&T community; an understanding of large research and educational enterprises; background as a practicing researcher
(academic or nonacademic); awareness of a wide variety of public-policy issues; familiarity with issues in technology and national security, economic development, health and the environment, and international affairs; and the ability to work and communicate with others, including policy makers.
Because the APST does not require Senate confirmation, the nominee should be appointed immediately after the presidential inauguration. However, because the APST cannot undertake the duties of OSTP director without Senate confirmation, the President should seek his or her rapid confirmation to facilitate a continuous connection between the two roles.
The President and the Senate should streamline and accelerate the appointment process for S&T personnel—indeed, all key personnel—to reduce the personal and financial burdens on nominees and to allow important positions to be filled promptly.
Because of the critical need for input by high-level S&T leadership in program implementation and current policy debates, it is imperative that key positions not sit vacant for long periods. In addition to identifying candidates early in a new administration or replacements in an existing one, efforts must be made to streamline and accelerate the appointment process.
Streamlining could involve such mechanisms as relying on one system of background checks rather than separate systems for the White House and the Senate, clarifying the criteria for the position in question and the principles for questioning nominees, requesting only relevant and important background information, and keeping the process timely and on track with the goal of completing the appointment process within 4 months from first White House contact to Senate confirmation.
Congress and the Office of Government Ethics should consolidate and simplify appointment policies and procedures to reduce the financial and vocational obstacles to government service.
Some mechanisms for consolidating and simplifying the process are standardizing and clarifying pre-employment requirements and postemployment restrictions, reducing unreasonable financial and professional losses for those who serve by simplifying financial-disclosure reporting requirements (for example, evaluating a de minimis rule), eliminating many of the restrictions associated with the use of blind trusts, and ensuring continuing health insurance and pension-plan coverage.
The APST and other senior administration leadership should actively seek input from accomplished and recognized S&T leaders and from a broad and diverse set of constituencies when seeking candidates for S&T appointments.
As a means of seeking this input and to build a strong pool of candidates with policy experience now and in the future, accomplished and recognized S&T leaders and professional science, engineering, and health societies should propose emerging leaders in their fields to serve in government positions and should expand junior and senior internship and fellowship programs that provide their members with government and policy experience. Continuing efforts should be made to identify women and members of underrepresented groups for such positions.
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY APPOINTMENTS TO FEDERAL ADVISORY COMMITTEES
When a federal advisory committee requires scientific or technical proficiency, persons nominated to provide that expertise should be selected on the basis of their scientific and technical knowledge and credentials and their professional and personal integrity. It is inappropriate to ask them to provide nonrelevant information, such as voting record, political-party affiliation, or position on particular policies.
S&T issues frequently pose ethical and societal questions that may require regulation or policy solutions, and many critical policy choices in national security, the environment, the economy, agriculture, energy, and health depend on a deep understanding of S&T. Many factors—including societal values, economic costs, and political judgments—come together with technical judgments in the process of reaching advisory committee recommendations. Essential viewpoints needed for appropriate committee balance and scope should be represented by accomplished people in that policy arena, but scientists, engineers, and health professionals nominated primarily to provide S&T input should be selected for their scientific and technological knowledge and credentials and for their professional and personal integrity.
Achieving a balance of policy perspectives may be appropriate for those placed on committees for their policy insights, but it is not a relevant criterion for selecting members whose purpose is to provide scientific and technical expertise. Therefore, it is no more appropriate to ask S&T experts to provide nonrelevant information—such as voting record, political-party affiliation, or position on particular policies—than to ask them other personal and immaterial information, such as hair color or height. This type of information has no relevance in discussions related to S&T.
Furthermore, even for committee members selected for reasons unrelated to expertise, political-party affiliation and voting record do not necessarily predict their position on particular policies and should not be used as a means to balance committee perspectives.
Finally, most people are likely to form opinions on S&T issues with which they are experienced and familiar. For that reason, excluding S&T experts from serving on advisory committees solely on the grounds that their opinions are known is inappropriate and could leave the federal advisory committee system devoid of qualified candidates. The government would be better served by a policy in which the best scientists, engineers, and health professionals are selected because of their expertise with their opinions disclosed to staff and other committee members in closed session than by a policy that excludes them because of their presumed opinions on S&T issues.
Disclosing perspectives, relevant experiences, and possible biases serves two important purposes: it provides a context in which committees can assess and consider the views of individual committee members, and it provides an opportunity to balance strong opinions or perspectives through the appointment of additional committee members.
The National Academies uses such a policy: people asked to serve on committees are obliged to reveal any possible sources of bias that they have so that others on the committee can discount or ignore their advice on a given subject. That approach promotes the inclusion of people who potentially can make important contributions to the work at hand. It does not, however, prevent or guard against appointing people who have conflicts of interest—a separate but equally important concern.
Presidential administrations should make the process for nominating and appointing people to advisory committees more explicit and visible and should examine current federal advisory committee appointment categories to see whether they are sufficient to meet the nation’s needs.
Administration officials should broadly announce the intent to create an advisory committee or appoint new members to an existing committee and should provide an opportunity for relevant and interested parties to suggest nominees they believe would be good committee members.
A model for this process is that used by the Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board, which provides information on its Web site on the method and selection criteria related to its advisory committees and Federal Register notices requesting nominations for a particular committee and later describing how a particular committee was formed. It also posts biographic and some general financial information (such as sources of research support) on a committee’s membership before the committee’s initial meeting and provides timely announcements of the committee’s meeting agenda and followup on a short-term basis with the minutes of committee meetings’ open sessions (although the latter are required by the Federal Advisory Committee Act [FACA], timeliness is not enforced). Procedural mechanisms of this type should be in place for all federal advisory committees.
Efforts are also needed to clarify and identify the conflict-of-interest principles that will be applied to committee membership. As a first step toward public disclosure, the General Service Administration should post on its Web site and elsewhere the appointment status of appointees—that is, whether a committee member is to be classified as a special government employee, a regular government employee, a consultant, or a representative since there can be great variance in conflict-of-interest procedures.
As a second step, the appointment classification should be re-examined to determine whether it meets the needs of federal agencies’ activities. Of particular concern is the classification of committee members who review research proposals or provide direction on federal research programs. Care needs to be taken to ensure that conflict-of-interest requirements for such federal advisory committees are not so burdensome that the best scientists, engineers, and health professionals are unwilling to serve on them.
To build confidence in the advisory committee system and increase the willingness of scientists and engineers to serve, department and agency heads should establish an appointment process supported by explicit policies and procedures and hold staff accountable for its implementation.
Staff who process advisory committee membership nominations and who manage advisory committee operations should be properly trained senior employees familiar with the importance and nuances of the advisory committee process, including a clear understanding of the appropriateness of the questions that candidates should and should not be asked.
The nation is in need of exceptionally able scientists, engineers, and health professionals to serve in executive positions in the federal government and on federal advisory committees. Such persons, when serving as presidential appointees, make key programmatic and policy decisions that will affect our lives and those of our children. Similarly, skilled scientists and engineers are needed for advisory committees to provide advice on the myriad issues with complex technologic dimensions that confront government decision makers. Our nation has long been served by its
ability to draw qualified S&T candidates to government service because of the opportunities for intellectually challenging work that affects the world in which we live and that encourages and protects the scientific process. We must continue to enlist the best candidates for these important positions and ensure that the obstacles to their service are minimized.