Rep. Vern Ehlers on S&T Advisors in Policy Making

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Publication date: 
9 August 2004

As reviewed in FYI #106, the National Academies of Science Committee on Ensuring the Best Science & Technology Presidential and Federal Advisory Committee Appointments met on July 21. One of the speakers at this meeting was Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI). Ehlers, one of two physicists in Congress, is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards. The full text of Ehlers' prepared remarks follow. FYI #108 will provide the full comments of Rep. Henry Waxman.


"Thank you for inviting me to testify on the need to ensure that the best and brightest scientists and engineers are willing, and able, to participate in the national policymaking process.

"Science and technology surround us--computers and communications devices, advances in food production and medicine, as well as breakthroughs in energy and defense--all rely on innovations in science and technology. These advances drive our economy, secure the nation, and improve our daily lives. They also frequently pose significant ethical and societal questions that may require regulation or policy solutions. Scientific information is a key consideration in making policy decisions. However, many additional factors--including societal values, economic costs and political judgments--must also be included in the final decision.

"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. Scientists, mathematicians, engineers and health professionals make significant policy contributions as members of Presidential and federal advisory committees. We must ensure that these positions are filled by highly-qualified, dedicated persons of high integrity. Unfortunately, turnover in science policy positions is high and the pool of scientists willing to enter government service is dwindling. The reluctance of scientists to participate in the policy-making process negatively affects the government's ability to make good science policy decisions. We need scientists to enter government service—not only as appointees, but also as elected officials, particularly in Congress. To encourage this change, we must address systemic and bureaucratic barriers that hinder scientists' participation in the political process.

"Thus, I am very pleased that your Committee will scrutinize the current appointment process to determine the areas in which it serves us well and to pinpoint those needing improvement. In addition, I encourage the Committee to examine the relationship between the government and scientific communities as a possible barrier to scientist participation. I believe that there is a lack of trust and understanding between these communities. This lack of trust, coupled with bureaucratic barriers, deters scientists from entering government service. We must make every effort to identify and eliminate these problems.


"In choosing scientists, engineers and health professionals to serve on presidential and federal advisory committees, a single, guiding principle should be applied: select the most-qualified person for the job. To be qualified, the candidate must be a top-notch scientist and a respected expert in his or her field. However, scientific knowledge alone cannot be the only criterion. Above all, the appointee should be a person of high integrity who is willing to display that integrity in making difficult decisions. The candidate must also possess a number of skills that are necessary for success in the political arena. These include an understanding of, and a willingness to work within, the political process, good communication and networking skills, and the ability to negotiate and compromise--on issues, not principles. In the case of Presidential appointments, it is important that the scientist be in tune with the philosophy of the appointing President.

"Decision-making in the Political Realm

"I noted earlier that there is an air of distrust between the scientific and government communities. Perhaps "distrust" is too strong a characterization for the lack of understanding and the misgivings that pervades the current scientific and government nexus. Whatever word you choose, the atmosphere is chilly, and the impact on the decision-making process is negative.

"I believe these problems stem from a failure in education and understanding. The political and scientific fields are very divergent, and, unfortunately, very few people understand the intimate workings of both. While we have done a poor job of educating one another about the thought processes and value systems that govern our respective fields, we appear to have learned even less about their intersections and boundaries. This gives rise to misperceptions and missed opportunities to work together to create good science policy. We must each learn the fundamentals of the other field—government officials must understand science, its methods and limits; scientists must study the policy process and willingly participate.

"I am not suggesting here that scientists be politicians. I am simply noting that scientists must understand the political field, admit that the scientific and political arenas are inherently different, and be prepared to work within the boundaries and rules of the political environment. This means that the scientists must be in touch (even in tune) with the political realities around them. They must also accept that scientific evidence and ideas are but one input in the calculus that gives rise to good science policy decisions—it is both arrogant and naïve of the scientific community to pretend otherwise. Only by understanding the political process can scientists fully integrate science into decision-making. I am not suggesting that scientists must ‘sell out.' Quite the contrary, scientists who understand the process will be more effective in making sure scientific evidence and expertise is properly evaluated and considered.

"The onus is on all of us in government and science to increase our level of understanding. We must foster the mutual respect necessary to ensure that we successfully work together to improve science policy decisions.

"Bureaucratic Barriers

"Recruiting scientists for governmental work is a significant challenge for a variety of reasons. The dearth of qualified candidates is due in part to the inherent difficulties associated with the job. Being a member of a federal advisory panel is a thankless job. It involves long hours and hard work, takes time away from research and family, and offers considerable frustrations. Hard work and challenges do not normally discourage scientists from pursuing an important mission; however, there are several additional bureaucratic disincentives to entering government service.
"These obstacles include:

"Unattractive jobs:
Low pay
Perceived lack of government effectiveness
Low professional prestige associated with public service
Costs associated with divestitures to adhere to conflict of interest provisions

"Negative impacts on current or future career advancement:
Disruption of research
Government service is not valued by universities or industry for tenure or advancement
Post-government employment rules restrict subsequent advancement and employment

"Complex and opaque vetting and confirmation process:
Can last for extensive time period
Requires excruciating financial disclosure
Lack of privacy
Significant disruption of research and private life even before government service

"These disadvantages (coupled with the inherent difficulties of the job) discourage many scientists from entering public service.

"To ensure that more highly-qualified scientists and engineers be considered for, and accept, government appointments, we must address these systemic disincentives. We have been struggling with many of these problems for years. Although pay scales have improved somewhat, there is still a great deal of difficulty in navigating the conflict of interest and post-employment regulations. This is due in part to the piece-meal nature of the current laws governing these issues. It would be ideal to codify the requirements in a single law. In considering this option, we must recognize the very real difficulties associated with repealing, updating and consolidating so many pieces of the U.S. Code.

"Addressing the perception that government is ineffective and combating the low prestige attached to government service will be very difficult. Tackling these will require a great deal of time, attention, education and mutual respect between the scientific and governmental communities.

"We need to launch an effective public relations campaign to address scientists' concerns and emphasize the benefits of entering government service. There are benefits, after all, or I would not be here. Scientists working in the policy arena, gain new perspectives and have the pleasure of serving the nation. In addition, we have the opportunity to tackle new challenges and affect change on a national level. For example, I have worked for many years, with considerable success, to increase the funding for basic research at the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy's Office of Science. This has been a difficult row to hoe, but one that is crucial to the future economic and national security of the nation.

"To address the complex vetting process, I suggest that the government create a well-defined and coherent process for scientific appointments. This process must be transparent and easily followed by applicants. There should be a single, clear implementation process, from initial application through vetting, security clearance and confirmation. The government should supply feedback and status reports to help applicants gauge their progress. While appointments are often considered political plums, this is not true for many scientists. In order to encourage scientists to join government ranks, we need to make sure they are fully informed throughout the process.

"Beyond the bureaucratic fixes, we must improve communication and interaction between the government and scientific communities. There must be a conscious and good-faith effort on the part of both communities to better understand each other, and improve the way we work together to ensure that good science policies are enacted. We need to lay a foundation of mutual respect and common involvement—only in this way will we attract the best and brightest scientists to public service.

"Thank you again for the opportunity to address this very important issue. I look forward to receiving the Committee's final report and working with you to strengthen the presidential appointment process. I would gladly answer any questions you may have."