Policy-makers should enhance selection process for Presidential S&T appointments

11/18/04

WASHINGTON -- To tackle increasingly complex issues, U.S. policy-makers should ensure that both the presidential appointment process for senior science and technology posts and the process of appointing experts to federal S&T advisory committees operate more quickly and transparently, says a new report from the National Academies.

Immediately after each general election, the president or president-elect should name a confidential "assistant to the president for science and technology" to provide advice in the event of a crisis and to help quickly identify strong candidates for crucial S&T appointments. Authorities also should make certain that appointments to advisory committees are not politicized or used to promote foregone conclusions. Scientists, engineers, and health professionals should be appointed to federal advisory committees based on their expertise and integrity. They should not be asked for information that would have no bearing on the scientific or technical expertise they would provide during committee discussions such as political party affiliation, voting record, or personal positions on particular issues, the report says.

The report is the third in a series of reports that the National Academies have issued since 1992 on the presidential appointment process. Each has been issued during a presidential election year to offer the successful candidate recommendations for change. Recently, concerns have been raised about the need to provide continuity in S&T advice -- given national and homeland security concerns -- and about whether appointments to S&T advisory committees are being increasingly politicized.

"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 a partner at the law firm of Hogan & Hartson LLP, Washington, D.C., who served in Congress for 21 years. "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."

The study committee emphasized the need for credible, trustworthy S&T experts to offer both the president and the nation at large critical advice in these fields from the very first days after a presidential election and throughout a president's tenure.

PRESIDENTIAL S&T APPOINTMENTS

Presidential S&T appointees include people whose focus is science and technology, as well as those who must have an understanding of science and technology to benefit public policy. Historically, the "science adviser," a member of the White House staff, has served as the federal point person who coordinated scientific and technical advice from various federal departments to inform the president. To foster greater continuity in S&T advice given to the president, the science adviser should consistently be given the rank of "assistant to the president for science and technology," the report recommends. And this individual should be promptly put in place not only to respond to any national and homeland security concerns, but also to help identify potential S&T appointees. Only some presidents have had such assistants, and the time frame in which they were named has varied greatly.

After inauguration, the president should promptly nominate the same assistant as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to seamlessly connect the two roles, the report adds. The U.S. Senate still must approve the nominee to direct OSTP.

Each candidate's selection process should be completed within four months, and positions that are key to national security should be filled even faster. Accelerating the process would reduce personal and financial burdens on nominees and give high-ranking leaders in science and technology earlier opportunities to contribute to relevant policy discussions, the report says. Efforts to streamline could include conducting one background check rather than separate reviews by the White House and Senate, clarifying job criteria, and simplifying financial disclosure rules. Conflict-of-interest requirements also should be reviewed to ensure that they are neither too burdensome nor too lenient.

APPOINTMENTS TO FEDERAL ADVISORY COMMITTEES

Many scientists, engineers, and health professionals serve on roughly 1,000 federal S&T advisory committees, examining issues such as safety standards for drinking water and biodefense priorities. Some are chosen for their policy expertise, but most are selected for their scientific and technical knowledge. Experts who are nominated mainly to provide scientific or technical advice in particular fields should be chosen for their credentials and integrity -- not for irrelevant criteria, the report says. Also, conflict-of-interest requirements should not be so burdensome that top scientists, engineers, and health professionals are unwilling to serve on advisory committees particularly committees that review research proposals or provide direction to federal research programs.

The S&T perspectives of advisory committee candidates and their possible biases should be disclosed and discussed in closed sessions with committee members and department or agency staff at a committee's initial meeting. Doing so would provide context and help officials determine whether they need to appoint more committee members to balance strong opinions, as required by federal law.

Overall, heads of departments or agencies should establish a more visible process for nominating and appointing people, the report says. And the process should be supported by explicit policies and procedures. Staff members should be held accountable for its implementation; furthermore, they should be well-trained, senior employees who are familiar with the importance and nuances of the advisory committee system. They must have a clear understanding of what questions are appropriate and inappropriate to ask.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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