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FYI Number 11: January 25, 2005

Academy Report Makes Recommendations on Federal S&T Appointments

The task of appointing new S&T agency officials at the onset of the second Bush Administration is not nearly as complicated as it was four years ago. While some top level positions need to be filled, such as those of the NASA Administrator and NIST Director, many of the key S&T officials remain in place.

Before the November election, a report was released by the National Academies addressing the process of making presidential appointments to top science and technology positions and federal S&T advisory committees. Entitled "Science and Technology in the National Interest: Ensuring the Best Presidential and Federal Advisory Committee Science and Technology Appointments," the 205-page report is available at http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11152.html. John Porter, a former Member of Congress, chaired the eleven member committee that produced this report.

Two previous Academy reports have been issued on the S&T appointment process, although they only examined agency positions (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2000/fyi00.127.htm). The latest report also reviews appointments to federal S&T advisory committees. Since President Bush was reelected and did not have to build an entirely new administration, this FYI will center on the committee's recommendations regarding advisory committee appointments.

In releasing the report, Porter, Frank Press and Richard Meserve discussed what the committee reviewed and did not review. Porter referred to charges made by critics that the Bush Administration has politicized the process of appointing S&T officials and advisory committee members (http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/106.html). Speaking generally, Porter said it was "vital" that the members of S&T advisory committee positions be seen as impartial and independent, and that it was "inappropriate to ask" prospective committee members about their party affiliation, election votes, or policy positions. Scientists should not be excluded from advisory committees because of their personal views, he said. Meserve commented that there are approximately 1,000 federal advisory committees, of which one-half involve an S&T component. Many researchers are unaware of how the advisory committee system works, Meserve stated, and feel shut-out of the process. Porter and Meserve stressed that the committee made no investigation or assessment of the current Administration's practices, Porter saying that it was "not within our realm [to determine] if there have been misjudgements or violations."

Porter made an important distinction between various types of advisory committees. If a president is seeking policy advise, it is acceptable for a prospective committee member's policy or political views to be considered. If science and technology expertise is sought - and not policy options - Porter reiterated that it was "simply not appropriate" to ask political questions in the recruiting process, and under some circumstances it could be illegal. The report went into more detail; the following are three of the report's seven recommendations on 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."

"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."

"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."

The committee found "little progress had been made on the recommendations of the 2000 report," but was more hopeful about the utility of the latest endeavor. "This report will sell itself" because of the times we are in, Press predicted. Meserve added that "we are trying to sensitize" the Administration, with Porter saying that the OSTP Director John Marburger had been briefed on the report, and was very interested in reviewing and implementing its recommendations.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3095

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