"Since science is an important component of policymaking, it
is imperative that government officials and lawmakers have access to
the best technical advice and expertise." - Rep. Vernon Ehlers
"When political conflict surrounds a scientific issue, we need
to hear an independent and expert view of the evidence." -
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA)
The July 21 meeting of a National Academies committee had two distinct
components. Looking at what has become the politically-sensitive matter
of "ensuring the best science and technology presidential and federal
advisory committee appointments," eleven senior-level S&T researchers
and policymakers are now examining how to ensure that the best scientific
advice is incorporated into federal policy making.
The Committee on Ensuring the Best Science & Technology Presidential
and Federal Advisory Committee Appointments is now chaired by John Porter,
formerly the chairman of the House Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations
Subcommittee. This committee has had a long tenure, having produced
an eight-page document on the same topic before the transition to the
Bush Administration in 2000 (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2000/fyi00.127.htm
), as well as a similar but much longer document in 1992. Both documents
and other information about the committee is at http://www7.nationalacademies.org/presidentialappointments/
The committee intends to produce a new document shortly after this
November's presidential election. It will convene again on August 23
in a meeting closed to the public.
The meeting began with a one-hour presentation and discussion with
OSTP Director John Marburger, followed by a panel discussion with four
experts from the General Services Administration, General Accountability
Office, Brookings Institution, and the (U.S.) Office of Government Ethics.
This morning session was more academic or process oriented, for as Porter
instructed, the committee was seeking a better understanding of the
process. Later in the day, the second half of the meeting evolved more
into a critique of the Bush Administration.
Marburger's remarks were management-oriented. He stressed the difficulty
of finding scientists who can be successful in "policy jobs"
as contrasted to research positions. "It's not easy to find people
with that kind of experience," he said, later adding "the
pool is alarmingly small." Also discussed at some length by Marburger
and the following panel was the onerous and difficult disclosure process,
which while necessary, can take weeks to complete. Federal salaries
can be a fraction of previous earnings. Finally, the long background
and nomination process is a significant impediment. Resolution of these
problems, Marburger told the committee, was "quasi-impossible."
During the follow-up discussion, Marburger drew a distinction between
science (saying "no one should ever lie" and "as a scientist,
you must represent what science says") and policy. If someone cannot
agree with the policy process and resulting outcomes, these kinds of
policy positions are not a good fit. It is easy to distinguish between
science and policy, Marburger said, saying it is "not as big a
problem as it is made out to be."
Marburger added that knowledge of the policy process is not as important
for advisory committee positions, giving as examples PCAST and the National
Science Board. When summing up, Marburger said that despite the difficulties
that he had raised, there is an "excitement in these jobs"
and they are "regarded as a good place to be" in someone's
career. When asked for a single top-priority recommendation, Marburger
advised that S&T appointments be made early in a new administration.
The following panelists offered a range of views and recommendations
on making the staffing and advisory process work better. There are thousands
of federal advisory committees for 56 federal agencies, studying many
different policy and regulatory issues. With one panelist explaining
that issues usually associated with staffing and advisory panels are
usually not a "headline or sexy issue," there is general agreement
among outside organizations that reforms are needed. Echoing many of
Marburger's earlier points, the panelists discussed topics such as the
nomination and background process, financial disincentives, and timeliness
of appointments. A major discussion item was the question of balance
on advisory panels. The best qualified people, one speaker noted, often
come with "baggage."
One hour of the afternoon meeting was provided to representatives from
ten different organizations to make five-minute statements. Presented
from organizations as diverse as the American Mathematical Society,
the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Union of Concerned Scientists,
the comments included calls for transparency in the appointment process
and tighter financial conflict requirements. Several of the presentations
were critical of the Bush Administration, with one speaker referring
to "an exodus of scientific talent from the government" and
"inappropriate interference" in the advisory process.
The final two speakers were Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), a well-known
critic of the Administration, and Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI). Ehlers,
in response to a series of questions from committee chairman Porter,
said that it was appropriate for presidentially-appointed S&T advisors
to reflect a president's philosophy. Waxman disagreed, saying that for
scientific advisory committees, politics should not play any role. "We
ought to know the good science," Waxman added. Ehlers replied that
"the line is that not that simple" to draw between science
and policy. In later questioning, Ehlers said that while advisory panels
"would always want a good balance," it was not inappropriate
to ask a prospective panel member about his or her position on an issue
such as abortion. This observation was the subject of a later press
release by the minority members of the House Science Committee (see
The full text of the prepared statements of Rep. Ehlers and Rep. Waxman
will appear in future issues of FYI.