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All the President’s Scientists

In the Next administration, a Call to Scientific Service

Oval office meeting SOURCE: AP/Paul Morse For eight years running, the National Academy of Sciences has offered public advice on scientific appointments for the next administration and seen its advice largely ignored. This year, the tone is different, and it’s time to pay attention.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture from Los Angeles, California. He is author of two previous books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs at The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum. (Photo:

Every presidential election year going back to 2000—and before that, in 1992 as well—the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has released a report, addressed to the incoming administration, providing input on presidential appointments in the area of science and technology. In essence, these reports have underscored the indisputable importance of filling positions ranging from the White House science adviser to the head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in a timely manner, and with the best possible candidates. And in some sense, each report reiterates several core points: The overarching need for an influential, cabinet-level science adviser (call the position the “First Scientist”) who is appointed just after the election, for instance; and the need for streamlining the appointments process and cutting down on red tape. In addition, the 2004 and 2008 reports both stress the importance of nonpartisan, expertise-based assessments of which scientists will serve on the federal government’s many science-related advisory committees.

Sadly, such repetition may stem in part from the fact that of late, these valuable reports have been more or less ignored. The Bush administration did not appoint an influential, cabinet-level science adviser, and certainly did not appoint its senior science adviser promptly. It was, in fact, the slowest administration ever to fill the top 500 positions in government, according to the Brookings Institution, and left many science-related agencies (such as the Food and Drug Administration) leaderless for significant periods of time. (Given recent concerns about foodborne illnesses and contaminants, let’s hope that wouldn’t fly this time around.) The Bush administration also became notorious for politicizing the membership of scientific advisory committees—presumably the reason the 2004 and 2008 NAS reports both take up this issue (which in 2000 wasn’t on the radar).

Marburger…will always be remembered as the science adviser who took Bush’s side when the nation’s scientists stood up and challenged the administration on the grounds of scientific integrity.

For indeed, while the core NAS recommendations haven’t changed much, it is indisputable that they read far differently now than they did eight years ago. Consider what has happened to the post of the presidential science adviser, arguably the most luminous gem in the science and technology appointments trove. Bush’s current adviser, physicist John Marburger, is the longest-lasting occupant of this role in American history, having served for a full two terms (although he was originally appointed very late in 2001). And yet at the same time, Marburger’s tenure probably represents the “nadir” for the position in terms of its influence, as University of California-Merced science historian Gregg Herken put it to me last year.

Marburger is, most emphatically, not what the NAS recommends; he lacks the title of “assistant to the president,” and thus does not serve in a cabinet-level role. And while it’s probably more important for a presidential science adviser to have a good relationship with the president than with the scientific community, it’s quite clear that Marburger’s position vis a vis the latter has been hopelessly undermined—he will always be remembered as the science adviser who took Bush’s side when the nation’s scientists stood up and challenged the administration on the grounds of scientific integrity. (There are good reasons to think that either Barack Obama or John McCain will restore prominence to the science adviser position.)

Over all, there is little to dispute about the body of the NAS recommendations; the problem here has always been political responsiveness to them on the part of the administration, rather than their substance. Still, there’s something new to the 2004 and especially the 2008 NAS reports that I think bears remarking upon.

In addition to demanding action from the president, both of the more recent reports also call upon the nation’s scientific community—and particularly its membership societies—to appoint its most promising young researchers to serve in government science and technology posts, and to create more fellowships, like the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences’ excellent program, to get younger scientists training in the workings government. In short, the idea is that while the president and his transition staff should grasp the importance of science and technology appointments, the science community, at the same time, must be ready to offer up its best and brightest.

Indeed, in the 2008 report one senses a stronger tone (stronger for the generally staid National Academies, anyway) about the need for scientists to embrace public service; as it concludes, researchers “have much to give back. Government service is an excellent means by which to repay that debt.” This is remarkable, because it’s fairly notorious that scientists have not always clamored to be involved in government. It takes away from their research work; it doesn’t necessarily lead to academic career advancement; it requires uprooting and can even pose political risks. Nevertheless, here is the NAS saying strongly that there must be much more of it. That’s critical, because to reconnect science and the political process, what we need to see most is bridge building from both sides.

And we need to see it urgently: The impending presidential transition is one in which the candidates cannot afford to dally on the issue of science appointments. Modern presidential transitions, each more complex than the last one, require an enormous amount of planning and effort, beginning even before the party’s nominating conventions. While the campaigns are certainly busy, they should heed the NAS advice and not loose a minute in restoring the integrity and prominence of federal scientific service.

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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