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Web Extra Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Giving federal science advice

As President Bush continued to consolidate his cabinet appointments last week, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) called for changes in the way the president appoints a science adviser. This recommendation is one of several suggested by NAS in a recent report on how science and technology appointments made by the federal government.

The crux of the NAS report involves the selection of specialists to serve in the almost 1,000 advisory committees that convene to advise federal agencies on diverse issues, ranging from stem cell research to environmental impacts of mining and coal. "In recent years, the public policy issues that involve science and technology have become so prominent," says Frank Press, a member of the NAS committee responsible for the report and a geophysicist who now works as a consultant for the Washington Advisory Group. "We feel that the importance of these committees now has grown to exceed the importance in all previous years," particularly with regard to homeland security and earth science issues such as climate change.

"We are all very conscious of a different national security situation," including concerns about various types of weapons and anthrax attacks, said NAS committee member Richard Meserve, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, at a press conference. "All those matters seem to me to reinforce the importance of having science officials in place," he said, "and should influence [the report's] impact."

Meserve said that the "thrust" of the report is that "people selected for advisory committees based on their scientific expertise should be judged on science and issues related to personal integrity, and that other matters are not relevant to selection process," including political affiliations.

One of the most important aspects of the NAS report is its call for a "flat prohibition on asking scientists litmus test questions," says Alden Meyer, the director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, which released several reports over the past year regarding the Bush administration's stance on science issues. "There are a number of examples we have documented," Meyer says, where a prospective committee member has been asked, "'what do you think about President Bush or his policies?' There's no more justification than asking their hair color or height if you are being asked to serve on a technical panel."

The NAS committee did not investigate any of the accusations, Meserve says. "We were trying to do something that looks forward," to guide future government activities and guidelines for the selection process.

Part of those guidelines include the immediate appointment of a science adviser to the president. Press, who served as President Carter's director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), said he lost time in his term in having to wait through the four-month period it took Congress to confirm his appointment. Although some presidents have elected not to appoint an adviser, Press said that doing so "immediately after an election is essential," so that the adviser is involved in decisions earlier in an administration, such as when appointments are made to major posts for the U.S. Department of Interior or other positions that oversee scientific endeavors.

The committee also recommends that the directorship of OSTP and the science advisory position be held by the same person, as it is now by the current OSTP director, John H. Marburger. Having the science adviser serve that post would allow for the president to take advantage of that person's advice immediately, Press says, instead of waiting out the approval process for the OSTP directorship.

Other suggestions in the NAS report would move to expedite the interviewing and approval process for the lower-level advisory committees, while also striving to keep the balance between privacy issues and the need to fully disclose conflicts of interest. The committee is also concerned that scientists and technology experts recruited to serve on such panels are from a broad pool. Press specifically cited the need for more women and minorities to serve. The report also says that the federal government should make the process more transparent and the transition from science to policy easier.

This year's report is similar to the NAS report from 2000, but the committee members said this year, its impact should be greater. "The public interest has grown, the public involvement has grown" when it comes to science and technology issues, Press says. "They've become part of political campaigns. The presidential commissions or the academy has been asked to look into a number of different issues, and Congress has asked the academy to do more things than ever before."

Naomi Lubick


Download PDFs of the NAS Report (Science and Technology in the National Interest: Ensuring the Best Presidential and Federal Advisory Committee Science and Technology Appointments)

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