S&T Advisors in Policy Making: National Academies Panel Examines Process

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Publication date: 
4 August 2004

"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 (R-MI)

"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 http://www.house.gov/science_democrats/releases/04jul22.htm.) The full text of the prepared statements of Rep. Ehlers and Rep. Waxman will appear in future issues of FYI.

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