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President’s Science and Technology Appointments Should Be Based on Nation’s Interests, Says NAS

by Johanna Ebner and Lee Herring, Public Affairs Office

In order to make sound scientific policy decisions, the U.S. Congress and the executive branch have historically relied on scientists and engineers as knowledgeable sources. Many of these scientists serve in federal government positions as Presidential Appointees or they serve as advisors on Federal Advisory Committees. Nominations for these two roles should be based on merit, according to a new National Academies of Science (NAS) report, not on congruence with the President’s political beliefs. The report affirms that nominees to federal science and technology advisory committees should not be asked about their political opinions or affiliations prior to being nominated for federal positions or selected to serve on advisory committees.

The NAS Committee on Ensuring the Best Presidential and Federal Advisory Committee Science and Technology Appointments authored three reports in a series that have been released during election years in order to advise the president about committee appointments. The earlier reports were released in 1992 and 2000. The latest report, Science and Technology in the National Interest: Ensuring the Best Presidential and Federal Advisory Committee Science and Technology Appointments, was released just after the 2004 presidential election.

Recommendations

According to the report, immediately after each election, a confidential “assistant to the president for science and technology” should be named to help quickly identify strong candidates for crucial science and technology appointments and provide reliable scientific advice in the event of a crisis. The recommendation to appoint the science assistant early has appeared in past NAS reports and was reiterated in the latest report given the delays by administrations to appoint the president’s chief science advisor. George W. Bush not only appointed his science advisor very late into his first term, he also reduced the stature of the position of the science advisor from a cabinet position.

Administration authorities should make certain that appointments to advisory committees are not politicized. According to the NAS report scientists, engineers, and health professionals should be appointed based on their expertise, and integrity. It is inappropriate to ask appointees for information that should and would have no bearing on their scientific or technical expertise (e.g., their political party affiliation, voting record, or personal opinions on politically controversial social issues).

“Failure to attract qualified people to high-ranking S&T positions, or misuse of the federal advisory committee system, would compromise the government’s effectiveness on important issues,” said John E. Porter, chair of the committee that wrote the report and former Congressman from Illinois. “To address the challenges of the 21st century, we need solid leadership and advice in scientific, medical, and technical areas—and certainly well-grounded scientific and technical information.”

At one level, these recommendations are applicable across presidencies and are designed to improve the influence of ‘sound science,’ and technology in informing public and social policy at the national level. At another level, the NAS recommendations read like a point-by-point challenge of the Bush administration’s record, a record that the ASA Council took notice of this past summer on the heels of extensive national and international press coverage, as well as science advocacy groups’ efforts and documentation (see Public Affairs Update, April 2004 Footnotes).

Specifically, at the 2004 ASA Annual Meeting, the ASA Council unanimously passed a statement, titled Maintaining the Integrity of U.S. Presidential Appointments of Scientists, that reads:

. . . [ASA] strongly urges the President . . . to consider scientific expertise as the primary basis for soliciting and nominating or appointing advisors to scientific, technological, and health-related posts or governmental advisory committees. Upon recommendation of its governing Council, the ASA believes no criteria other than scientific expertise should play the dominant role (implicitly or explicitly) in the President’s decision. . . . By adhering to professionally recognized scientific expertise in selection, the Administration, government agencies, and the American people will receive the best scientific knowledge and advice available when our nation formulates significant policy decisions. Such scientifically informed decisions can and should assure the continuation of America’s prominent position within scientific, technological, and health research domains as well as protect America’s international credibility and leadership within these areas. . . .

The ASA Council action was also motivated by an incident specifically affecting a research sociologist. Jane Menken, Director of the Institute of Behavioral Science in Boulder, Colorado, had served on the grant-reviewing Fogarty International Center Advisory Board of the National Institutes of Health for her two-year term (2000-2002) when she inexplicably did not win reappointment. Many colleagues and others in the science community (e.g., Union of Concerned Scientists) and on Capitol Hill (e.g., Rep. Henry Waxman of California) were convinced that her situation was a direct result of the Administration’s disregard for the important scientific integrity in policy making. Because her personal views on controversial matters were different from those of the Bush Administration, many believe Menken’s treatment was symptomatic of a large-scale disdain for objective science in the Administration.

ASA Council was also concerned about the reported “political” vetting of scientists by the government in the selection of experts to serve on international science and technology advisory bodies or as consultants. In response, Council issued the following statement (see complete statement at www.asanet.org/media/advisory.html):

. . . ASA Council strongly urges the President . . . to advise his appointees—such as the U.S. Representative to the United Nations and the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—to ensure that the U.S. Delegation to UNESCO, the Director of the HHS Office of Global Health Affairs (OGHA), and other such U.S. government representatives, do not interfere with the choices made by international bodies seeking expertise and input from recognized U.S. scientists. As a professional and learned society, the ASA believes that demonstrated, peer-recognized scientific expertise rather than adherence to particular policy positions . . . that will ensure international bodies . . . receive the most useful knowledge available from our country’s scientific community.

Meanwhile, in early December, the Federation of American Scientists issued recommendations for strengthening science and technology advice to the President and Congress.

For more information on the NAS recommendations, see www7.nationalacademies.org/presidentialappointments/. Copies of Science and Technology in the National Interest are available from the National Academies Press at www.nap.edu.