The security, economic well-being, 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. For example, as a nation we must confront the myriad scientific and technical challenges posed by such vital issues as bioterror threats, the genomic revolution, climate change, information technology, engineered crops, energy security, and land and resource management.
In addition, the US research enterprise is the largest in the world and leads in innovation in many fields. The reorganization of the government in response to the 9/11 attacks has shifted and reordered the priority of many research and development programs in the government, requiring heightened examination of the relative roles and responsibilities of various S&T programs.
As a result, the S&T community must be fully engaged in discussions and decisions in S&T policy and in S&T-dependent policy. The importance of the S&T community’s guidance for the nation was emphasized when the US Commission on National Security/21st Century wrote:
Second only to a weapon of mass destruction detonating in an American city, we can think of nothing more dangerous than a failure to manage properly science, technology, and education for the common good over the next quarter century.1
The challenge is for government to recognize when S&T expertise is needed and to find the best means of managing S&T and incorporating S&T into its programs and policies.2 Our most critical asset in meeting this goal is our intellectual capital—the hundreds of thousands of highly trained and expert scientists, engineers, and health professionals who work with what is known in the world of S&T and recognize what is not known. At no other time in our history has it been so vital 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.
Presidentially appointed executives in fewer than 100 positions form the core leadership of the government’s role in S&T. Those positions reside in the Executive Office of the President and in the agencies and departments that support scientific, engineering, and industrial research and development; manage large-scale defense, space, energy, health research, and environment programs; and regulate activities that have large technology components.
Most of the top S&T positions must be held by scientists, engineers, or health professionals with the specific expertise necessary for fulfillment of their responsibilities. They are often recruited into public service from academic or industrial research organizations. Those high-level officials make critical decisions at the point where government policies intersect with S&T. Thus, it
is essential that the pool of potential appointees not be narrowed by avoidable obstacles, such as the appointment process itself, unreasonably burdensome restrictions on pregovernment and postgovernment activities, and an unwillingness to cast the net more widely to include more women and members of underrepresented groups.
In addition to political appointments, the government often calls on outside scientists and engineers to provide objective independent advice on matters ranging from research funding priorities and awards to strategic planning for entire segments of federal investment in research. Nongovernment scientists and engineers are also asked to serve in an advisory capacity on committees that are considering policy issues that have critical S&T components, for example, setting priorities for biodefense capabilities, establishing drinking-water standards, and conducting drug approvals. The members of the committees may be appointed by the president, by an agency head, or by other senior executive staff.
Today, about 1,0003 federal advisory committees managed by federal agencies advise the federal government on a diverse array of scientific and technical topics and policy issues. The United States stands alone in the level of its commitment to this type of public input into critical policy decisions.
However, concerns have recently been raised by a variety of groups that the process of making appointments to federal advisory committees has become too politicized. The concern is that these actions have resulted in a skewing of the impartial perspective critical to soliciting independent advice. This has resulted in some groups’ questioning the effectiveness and legitimacy of these committees.4
The nation needs exceptionally able scientists and engineers in top executive positions and on federal advisory committees to weigh available data, to consider the advice of scientists and technical specialists, and, in the case of presidential appointees, to make key management, programmatic, and policy decisions. The government’s capacity to perform these functions could be seriously impaired by increasing the difficulty of recruiting people to those positions or by fostering the perception that the composition of advisory committees is being intentionally skewed to achieve a predetermined outcome.
A failure to attract qualified people to top S&T posts or misuse of the federal advisory committee system would compromise the effectiveness of our government with respect to important S&T issues in general. To address the challenges of the 21st century, we need sound science, sound scientific and technical leadership, and sound scientific and technical advice. These are nonpartisan goals.
This report is the third in a series issued by the National Academies Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy—a joint committee of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine—on the presidential appointment process, each delivered during a presidential election year with the goal of providing recommendations to the successful candidate about ways to improve the appointment process. The first report was issued in 1992,5 and it was updated in 2000.6
There has been little progress on the recommendations presented in the 2000 report (see Appendix B), and many of the
concerns and recommendations expressed then are still relevant. However, sufficient changes have occurred since that report was released—for example, the 2001 terrorist attacks, the anthrax deaths, the organization 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 a new report.
Furthermore, in contrast with the previous reports, this one, from the nonpartisan Committee on Ensuring the Best Presidential and Federal Advisory Committee Science and Technology Appointments, addresses not only presidential appointments to top S&T leadership positions, but also the selection of scientists, engineers, and health professionals to serve on federal advisory committees. Also, we emphasize that with respect to federal advisory committees, this report addresses only issues surrounding the appointment process; it does not discuss other charges that have been made regarding interference in the work of such committees.7 The committee also recognizes that, although its purview is limited to federal S&T appointments, other areas of federal responsibility are as important as S&T.