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

November 18, 2004

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 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.


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.
The study was supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Academies. The Academies provide science, engineering, and medical advice to the federal government under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences. A committee roster follows.

Copies of SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY IN THE NATIONAL INTEREST: ENSURING THE BEST PRESIDENTIAL AND FEDERAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY APPOINTMENTS will be available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at HTTP://WWW.NAP.EDU. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

[ This news release and the report are available at HTTP://NATIONAL-ACADEMIES.ORG ]

Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy


Former Congressman
10th District of Illinois; and
Hogan & Hartson LLP
Washington, D.C.

Recent Member
National Science Board;
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Conservation
U.S. Department of Energy, Carter Administration; and
General Manager for Technology Partnerships (retired)
Los Angeles

Former Science Adviser to President Nixon;
Former Director
White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and
EED Inc.
Bedminister, N.J.

Former Acting Science Adviser to President Reagan;
Former Deputy Director and Acting Director
White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and
Professor of Materials
University of California
Santa Barbara

Former Chairman
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,
Clinton Administration; and
Carnegie Institution of Washington
Washington, D.C.

Former Undersecretary of Energy, Clinton Administration;
Former Associate Director for Science
White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and
Professor of Physics and Director of Energy Studies
Laboratory for Energy and the Environment
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs,
Carter Administration
Managing Director
North American Health Care Division
Korn/Ferry International
Los Angeles

Former Science Adviser to President Carter;
Former Director
White House Office of Science and Technology Policy;
President Emeritus
National Academy of Sciences; and
The Washington Advisory Group LLC
Washington, D.C.

Former Director
National Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colo.

Former Secretary of Health and Human Services, George H. W. Bush Administration
President Emeritus and Founder
Morehouse School of Medicine;
President's Advisory Council on Black Colleges and Universities; and
Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS

Former Administrator
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, George W. Bush Administration;
Former Governor of New Jersey; and
Independent Consultant
Oldwick, N.J.


Study Director

1 Member, National Academy of Engineering
2 Member, National Academy of Sciences
3 Member, Institute of Medicine

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

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