In the National Interest
Best S&T Advice
Many scientists, engineers, and health professionals serve on nearly 1,000 federal advisory committees that offer guidance to U.S. policy-makers and the nation on a host of issues, from how to bolster homeland security to what foods Americans should be encouraged to eat each day. Scientists also are appointed by the president to lead agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation, where they help set priorities for the nation's research enterprise, the largest in the world.
While there are ample ways for science to make its mark on policy, in practice the system is far from flawless. The process for making science and technology (S&T) appointments is lengthy and rife with red tape, discouraging many well-qualified candidates from serving in leadership positions. Moreover, several groups and members of Congress have voiced concerns that appointments to federal advisory committees are being increasingly politicized. In light of these developments, the National Academies have issued a report -- the third on this subject since 1992 -- recommending ways to improve the process of recruiting S&T experts.
Soon after an election, the report says, the president or president-elect should choose a confidential science adviser who can help quickly identify candidates for other key S&T appointments in the crucial first days of the administration. This adviser could eventually serve as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The president and Senate also should streamline and accelerate the appointment process. For example, they should work to eliminate duplication in background checks -- currently one check is required by the White House and another by the Senate -- and to simplify the financial disclosure rules. The goal should be to complete each candidate's selection process within four months. Positions that are important to national security should be filled even faster.
The independent guidance given by federal advisory committees is critical, the report says, and this system should not be co-opted by those hoping to promote a foregone conclusion or advance a political agenda. Scientists and health professionals nominated mainly to provide S&T input should be selected for their knowledge, credentials, and integrity; they shouldn't be asked for irrelevant information, such as voting records or political party affiliation. Agency heads should establish an appointment process supported by explicit policies and procedures, and staff must have a clear understanding of what questions are appropriate or inappropriate to ask candidates.
In seeking nominees for both presidential appointments and advisory committees, the government needs to cast a wider net, the report adds. It should better publicize opportunities for service, get input from recognized S&T leaders, and strive to identify women and minorities who could serve. -- Sara Frueh
Science and Technology in the National Interest: Ensuring the Best Presidential and Federal Advisory Committee Science and Technology Appointments. Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, the National Academies (2004, 224 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09297-3; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $45.50 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).
The committee was chaired by John Edward Porter, partner, Hogan & Hartson LLP, Washington, D.C. The study was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Academies.