Science and Technology in the National Interest:
Ensuring the Best Presidential and Federal Advisory Committee
Science and Technology Appointments
National Academy of Sciences
National Academy of Engineering
Institute of Medicine
Nov. 17, 2004
John Edward Porter
Partner, Hogan & Hartson
Former member of Congress
Chair, Committee on Ensuring the Best Presidential and
Federal Advisory Committee Science and Technology Appointments
Principal, Washington Advisory Group
President Emeritus, National Academy of Sciences
Member, Committee on Ensuring the Best Presidential and
Federal Advisory Committee Science and Technology Appointments
President, Carnegie Institution of Washington
Member, Committee on Ensuring the Best Presidential and
Federal Advisory Committee Science and Technology Appointments
Mr. John Edward Porter
The United States and the world increasingly rely on the strength and vitality of the science and technology enterprise to solve some of the most intractable problems. Indeed, few aspects of modern public policy are untouched by science and technology. We depend on critical research advances to meet challenges in national defense, acute and chronic disease, economic growth, creation of a healthy and affordable food supply, and protection of the environment. The U.S. research enterprise is the largest in the world and leads in innovation in many fields.
The challenge for our government is to recognize when science and technology expertise is needed and to find the best means of managing science and technology and incorporating it into its programs and policies. 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 science and technology, and who 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.
Yet despite these needs and the enormous opportunities for scientists and engineers in public service, the committee that I am privileged to chair believes that many administrative and procedural obstacles prevent us from recruiting the best and brightest into top science and technology posts. And, in the search for scientists and engineers to serve on federal advisory committees, charges have surfaced recently that the process of making these appointments has been politicized. We believe it is important at this critical time that scientific and technical advice to the federal government be – and be seen as -- impartial and independent.
This is the third in a series of reports issued by the National Academies on the presidential appointment process, each delivered soon after a presidential election with the goal of providing recommendations to the successful candidate about ways to improve the appointments process. The first Academy report was issued in 1992 and the second in 2000. The committees that authored these reports made a series of recommendations for making the process more efficient and for increasing the breadth and depth of the pool of candidates. Unfortunately, little progress has been made on these past recommendations, and many of the concerns raised over a decade ago persist today.
Moreover, a number of changes have occurred since the 2000 report to warrant yet another, and broader, look at these sets of issues -- for example, the 2001 terrorist attacks, the anthrax deaths, the reorganization of homeland-security activities in the federal government, new developments in science and technology, and unfortunately, some concerns about the politicization of science and technology decision-making and advice. Thus, in contrast with the previous reports, this one covers not only presidential appointments to top science and technology 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. We made a total of seven recommendations in these two areas.
Let me say a little about the committee's charge and its mode of operation. First, it is important to recognize that our mandate, and thus the focus of our work, was science and technology appointments. We know well that appointments to senior positions and to federal advisory committees in other areas of federal responsibility are as important as those in science and technology.
The committee was asked to assess the status of recommendations made in the two previous reports, update the "50 Most Urgent S&T Presidential Appointments" list issued in 2000, consider the roles of federal advisory committees and the range of appointments available, develop principles for the selection and appointment of members to federal advisory committees, and to evaluate whether the depth and breadth of the pool of potential committee members is sufficient. In particular, we were asked how the application and selection processes for different kinds of committees could be strengthened to encourage the best-qualified nominees to contribute to the national research enterprise.
In responding to our charge, we undertook several activities, including reviewing the available literature, conducting interviews with leading scholars and federal agency officials, convening a meeting at which we received public input, and broadly soliciting comments from the scientific, engineering, and health communities. The level of interest was high, and we very much appreciate the thoughtful and valuable input that we received.
In a moment, I will turn to my colleagues, Frank Press and Richard Meserve, to present our recommendations. But before I do that, I would like to focus on what I consider to be one of our most important recommendations because of its currency and because it focuses on a topic not addressed in the two prior reports. It has to do with appointments of scientists, engineers, and health professionals to federal advisory committees.
Federal advisory committees sometimes address a perennial issue facing an agency, such as review of grant proposals or new drug applications, or focus on a specific issue or particular scientific or technical problem facing the agency or the nation. In addition, many policy-oriented issues have substantial science and technology components that require input and advice from the science and technology community.
There is no question that science and technology 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 science and technology. Many factors -- including societal values, economic costs, and political judgments -- come together with technical judgments in the process of reaching advisory committee recommendations. In many cases, these involve policy choices, but in many they do not. And scientists, engineers, and health professionals nominated primarily to provide scientific and technical input should be selected on the basis of their scientific and technical knowledge and credentials, and their professional and personal integrity.
Policy perspectives are appropriate for those placed on committees for their policy insights, but are not relevant criterion for selecting members whose purpose is to provide scientific and technical expertise. In these cases, the committee strongly believes that it is no more appropriate to ask science and technology experts to provide information -- such as voting record, political party affiliation, or position on particular policies -- than to ask them other personal information that is immaterial, such as hair color or height. This type of information has no relevance in discussions related to science and technology.
Thus, the committee recommends that 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.
Now, turning to the question of possible bias, most people are likely to form opinions on scientific and technical issues with which they are experienced and familiar. For that reason, excluding science and technology experts from serving on advisory committees solely on the grounds that their opinions are known could leave the federal advisory committee system devoid of qualified candidates. The committee believes that the government would be better served by a policy in which the best scientists, engineers, and health professionals are selected because of their expertise and professional standing. Their opinions can then be disclosed to staff and other committee members in closed session, so that any bias can be ascertained and noted. There should not be a policy that excludes scientists because of their presumed opinions on scientific and technological issues.
Disclosing perspectives, relevant experiences, and possible biases provides a context in which committees can assess and consider the views of individual committee members, and such an 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.
I would now like to ask Dr. Frank Press, president emeritus of the National Academy of Sciences, to speak to you about our recommendations to improve the appointment process to top science and technology leadership positions in the government.
Dr. Frank Press
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. These high-level officials make critical decisions at the point where government policies intersect with science and technology. Thus, it is essential that the pool of potential appointees not be narrowed by avoidable obstacles, such as the appointment process itself, unreasonably burdensome pre-employment requirements and post-employment restrictions on activities, and an unwillingness to cast the net more widely to include more women and members of underrepresented groups.
The committee identified four key aspects in which reforms are needed to enhance the nation's ability to recruit and attract the best S&T leadership to its highest level of public service. In addition, we identified the top federal science and technology leadership appointments important for the development of science and technology and public policy. The list, which is available in the executive summary, is divided into two parts. In the first are the key positions for which a science and technology background is essential. In the second are science and technology policy-related positions that are not traditionally held by a scientist, engineer, or health professional -- but for which an understanding of science and technology is important in a broader context of policy development.
Now, let me walk you through our specific recommendations in this area.
The first major recommendation addresses the positions of assistant to the president for science and technology and the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP.
Selection of an assistant for science and technology immediately after the election is essential to ensure that assistance is available to the president to provide advice in the event of a crisis, and in identifying or evaluating the best candidates for key science and technology appointments across the government. The presidential assistant can also advise the president on science and technology considerations with regard to federal budget-making, an activity that will immediately confront a new administration. The annual federal investment in research and development is more than $130 billion. It is critical that a science adviser be in place as quickly as possible to advise the president and Cabinet members on various aspects of this substantial investment.
Ideally, the assistant for S&T will have credibility and the respect of the science and technology 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 other policy-makers.
Some presidents have chosen not to appoint an assistant for science and technology. They are not required to do so; the establishment of the position is at the president's discretion. In contrast, the director of OSTP holds a statutory position in the Executive Office of the President, with government-wide S&T coordinating obligations. The OSTP director's duties may or may not encompass the access and policy roles within the White House enjoyed by the presidential assistants. Nevertheless, directors of OSTP have always been viewed as the science adviser. We urge that the president appoint his science adviser as an assistant to the president at the same early time that the other presidential assistants are appointed. Because of the overlap between the functions of the S&T presidential assistant and the director of OSTP, the president should also nominate and seek rapid Senate confirmation of his science adviser as director of OSTP. In other words, the same individual would serve both as an assistant to the president and director of OSTP, as was the example in the administration of the president's father, the first President Bush.
Our other recommendations regarding presidential appointments reiterate much of what was recommended in the National Academies' 2000 report. For example, we recommend that the president and the Senate 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.
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 four months from the first White House contact to Senate confirmation.
Our review of the existing literature and the comments we received from the science and technology community revealed that the attractiveness of government service to scientists and engineers is often diminished by professional losses, such as an interruption of research, an irreversible career shift toward management, and the spending of time away from a fast-moving field. Some highly eligible individuals are therefore naturally resistant to recruitment efforts.
Thus, when scientists and engineers are willing to consider presidential appointments, key barriers to their willingness to take the next step are the unduly complex pre-employment requirements and post-employment restrictions. Therefore we recommend that Congress and the Office of Government Ethics 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 post-employment 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 coverage plans.
Finally, an ongoing challenge for the entire science and technology enterprise is the need to create a larger pool of potential candidates for key science and technology positions. Representation of women and underrepresented minorities is improving in many professions, but progress has been slower in the scientific and engineering workforce. The pool of qualified candidates for S&T appointments is insufficiently broad and diverse, and women and some minorities are often underrepresented in the highest ranks of S&T leadership. By drawing from a limited pool of potential candidates, the scientific enterprise suffers. We recommend that the science adviser and other senior administration leadership actively seek input from accomplished and recognized science and technology leaders and from a broad and diverse set of constituencies when seeking candidates for scientific and technical appointments.
As a means of seeking this input and to build a strong pool of candidates with policy experience now and in the future, science and technology leaders and professional societies should propose emerging leaders in their fields to serve in government positions. Junior and senior internship and fellowship programs that provide their members with government and policy experience should be expanded.
Dr. Richard Meserve
Congressman Porter has described a major departure in this report from the previous reports – namely, the inclusion this time of recommendations concerning the appointment of science and technology experts to federal advisory committees. He covered our major recommendation regarding the criteria by which such individuals should be selected. I will expand a bit on that recommendation and address additional recommendations concerning advisory committees.
According to the General Services Administration, in 2004 there were nearly 1,000 federal advisory committees, half of which have a major scientific and technical component as measured by their charters or the numbers of scientists, engineers, and health professionals who are members. These committees came into existence for many reasons, exist at many levels of government, have a wide variety of missions, vary in the classification of their membership, and differ in their time in existence. Their membership may be appointed by the president; by the secretary, administrator, or director of a federal agency; or by other senior executive staff.
It is important to note that scientists, engineers, and health professionals feel an obligation to serve on federal advisory committees, and thereby to shape science and technology policy. Such service provides the best scientific and technical information to policy-makers and serves the science and technology enterprise itself. And, for all the challenges that this approach presents, this uniquely American emphasis on public input has served our nation well. The use of advisory committees by the federal government is a critical aspect of participatory government. The depth and breadth of knowledge and expertise that these scientists and engineers provide to policy-makers expand intellectual resources well beyond those which can reasonably be provided by federal employees, particularly in rapidly evolving science and technology fields. Even though the work of such committees is advisory, federal agencies often adopt their recommendations. Thus, advisory committees can have substantial influence in key elements of public policy.
As John Porter already discussed, the system for providing independent advice would be frustrated if only those who seek to promote a foregone conclusion or advance a political agenda were appointed to advisory committees. Scientific and technical advice must be based on professional judgment and the best evidence available.
Despite the importance of advisory committees to S&T policy and national policies in general, many members of the scientific and technical communities are unaware of or are misinformed about the processes used to create such committees or to appoint or nominate people to serve on them. As a result, they sometimes feel shut out of the process. Equally important, the pool of potential candidates is unnecessarily restricted by the inadequacy of publicity about opportunities for service.
To draw from a wide and diverse base for committee appointments and to ensure balance in the resulting committee makeup, it is essential to make information about the committee creation and nomination process public. Therefore, we recommend that presidential administrations should make the process for nominating and appointing people to advisory committees more explicit and visible.
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.
Another aspect of the appointment process requires reconsideration. Committee members are appointed under various authorities or mechanisms. Some are appointed as representatives, some as regular or special government employees, and others as consultants. The consequences of the manner in which an advisory committee is appointed are significant, as they affect the level of financial and other information that must be disclosed and can have implications on other activities in which the advisory committee member can be involved. Potential committee members should be made aware of the disclosure requirements tied to committee service, understand why disclosure of the information is necessary, and expect consistent and less-confusing procedural requirements than is currently the case. We recommend that the administration examine current federal advisory committee appointment categories to see whether they are sufficient to meet the nation's needs.
In particular, efforts are 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 Services 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; and provide information on the conflict-of-interest procedures for each. There are significant differences in the obligations arising from the classification.
As a second step, the appointment classification should be re-examined to see 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 the best scientists, engineers, and health professionals are willing to serve on such committees and to ensure that conflict-of-interest requirements are neither too burdensome nor too lenient.
Our final recommendation pertains to the implementation of the advisory committee appointment process in the bureaucracy. Because of the complex mandates assigned to many committees and the highly technical nature of their work, it is critical that agency committee-management staff understand the mission of the agency and the tasks assigned to the advisory committee, and are able to recognize and identify appropriate individuals to serve as advisory committee members.
In order to build confidence in the advisory committee system and increase the willingness of scientists and engineers to serve, we recommend that department and agency heads 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.
Thank you. I will now turn the program back over to John.
Mr. John Edward Porter
We must continue to enlist the best candidates for these important positions and ensure that the obstacles to their service are minimized. 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 science and technology 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.
My colleagues and I will now take questions. Those in the room, please be sure to step to a microphone. Whether you are here or participating over the Web, please be sure to identify yourself and your organization. Thank you.