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A Taxonomy of Scientific Appointments

Filling the Technical Ranks of the Obama Administration

Blue circles in a taxonomic heirarchy SOURCE: The Washington rumor mill is buzzing with names of possible science appointees—and there are dozens of major science-related positions to fill. The questions appointees will face are an opportunity for a clear break with past approaches.

Weiss’s Notebook

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss covered science and medicine for The Washington Post for 15 years, and now he brings his investigative eye to science policy. From cloning and stem cells to agricultural biotechnology and nanotechnology, Weiss examines the issues at the intersection of cutting edge research and public policy.

The presidential transition, begun quietly before the party conventions, now barrels ahead at full speed. And as soon as the transition team has completed its immediate work on the two most pressing issues of the day—national security and the economy—there is good reason to believe that the nation’s science agencies and offices will get fast and close attention.

It is a truism by now that the solutions to many of the major problems facing the United States—climate change, energy, the environment, health care, and food security, among others—have major scientific or technological components. It is also widely recognized that the Bush administration’s almost allergic rejection of scientific evidence and government oversight has badly stalled the development of new approaches to these problems, as well as others in the life sciences and public health. Transition officials clearly plan to act quickly to select new heads for the agencies responsible for these interlinked issues, with an eye toward enabling coordinated efforts.

Already, the Washington rumor mill is buzzing with names of possible science appointees. I have no inside information, but to satisfy the innate human urge to give and receive gossip, I’m happy to highlight some of what I’ve heard from others. For secretary of Health and Human Services, there is talk of former Majority Leader (and CAP senior fellow) Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who released a book in February on the nation’s healthcare crisis; Nobel laureate and former National Institutes of Health Director Harold Varmus, currently president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman and a family physician; and Kathleen Sebelius (D), the governor of Kansas, who made a name for herself when she successfully fought a major battle against BlueCross-BlueShield’s plan to become a for-profit company.

For FDA Commissioner, some have floated the names of Mike Taylor, a former deputy FDA commissioner with particular expertise in food safety; Mary Pendergast, who had a top post in the FDA under President Clinton and has also consulted for the pharmaceutical industry; and even Steven Nissen, the Cleveland Clinic maverick M.D. who has become a chronic thorn in the side of big pharma by repeatedly challenging the data that drug companies have used to back up their claims of safety and efficacy.

It’s been easy for scientists to gripe about their mistreatment during the past eight years. But now is not the time to demand payback.

The parlor game could go on, and it will. But what is more interesting, really, is just how many high-level science openings there are to fill. There are the cabinet-level positions overseeing such science-heavy departments as Agriculture, Energy, and Commerce. There is the surgeon general, the directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology; the administrators of NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and the head of the United States Geological Survey, the all-important research arm of the Interior department.

Within the executive office of the president alone there is the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and science advisor to the president (a position that many in science hope will be elevated to a cabinet level “assistant to the president” post); four associate directors of the Office of Science and Technology Policy; a gaggle of presidentially appointed members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology; the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality; the director and three associate directors of the Office of Management and Budget; and the administrator of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which has in recent years become an increasingly important venue for scientific review and regulation.

Now feel free to skip this paragraph—and to seek help if in fact you make it to the end—but I would be remiss not to mention as well that within the Agriculture Department alone the president needs to appoint three science-based under secretaries—for research, education, and economics; food safety; and food, nutrition, and consumer services. In Commerce he must choose an under secretary for oceans and atmosphere. In Defense he must find a director of defense research and engineering; an under secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics; a director for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; an assistant secretary for health affairs; an assistant secretary for networks and information integration; a chief information officer; and an assistant to the secretary for nuclear and chemical and biological defense programs. In Education he must pick a director of that department’s Institute of Education Sciences. In Energy there are slots that must be filled for an under secretary of science; an under secretary for energy and environment; an assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy; an assistant secretary for environmental management; an assistant secretary for fossil energy; an assistant secretary of nuclear energy; and an under secretary for nuclear security.

And remember, we’re just talking about the most science-y presidential appointments here. We’ll ignore the nearly 500 others for now (but see below for a more exhaustive list).

Of these myriad positions, the most important will be the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. This is a position that has traditionally been held by a physicist, a holdover from the days when the most important thing to think about in science was the risk of a nuclear attack. Today, as the nation faces a far broader array of scientific threats, including climate change and biological warfare, it will be interesting to see if the new president breaks with tradition and appoints an earth scientist or biologist to that central scientific coordinating position.

The fruits of all these transitional decisions will take time to ripen, but here are a few questions worth asking today:

Will HHS lead a quick and effective charge to focus more on prevention, reduce the cost of healthcare and insurance, and expand coverage to the un- and underinsured?

Will FDA work together with Agriculture to revamp the nation’s food safety system? Will it demand more of pharmaceutical companies, and will it regulate tobacco?

Will EPA get back to the job of using science to calculate honestly the effects of pesticides and other chemicals on the environment and human health? Will it lead the way to dealing with climate change and stand up for endangered species?

Will DOE jump-start the transition to a low-carbon economy by aggressively funding work on alternative energy sources and promulgating strict energy efficiency standards for homes and office buildings? Will it tackle the problem of nuclear waste?

And will Interior manage, in an integrated way, the nation’s precious fresh water resources and protect public lands for we the taxpayers who together own them?

To answer these questions in the affirmative will require a government commitment to data instead of ideology, which alone would constitute a real break from the Bush legacy. But it will also require a huge corps of scientists willing to speak up, and to provide and interpret those much-needed data for the good of the country.

The National Academies put it well in their 2008 report, “Science and Technology For America’s Progress: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments in the New Administration”:

The nature of our current national challenges, whether domestic or abroad, demands the best of science, engineering and technology to solve. “More of the same” will not work in the 21st century. Innovative thinking will be needed to a degree unprecedented in American history. Fortunately, large numbers of scientists, engineers, and health professionals have experienced positive change throughout their careers and have been enormously successful as a result. They have much to give back. Government service is an excellent means by which to repay that debt.

It’s been easy for scientists to gripe about their mistreatment during the past eight years. But now is not the time to demand payback. Now is the time for science to put its best foot forward and show the country what it’s been missing.

Rick Weiss is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Science Progress.

Key Science and Technology Positions

Adapted from the NAS report, “Science and Technology for America’s Progress: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments in the New Administration”

PAS = presidential appointment with Senate confirmation

PA = presidential appointment (without Senate confirmation)

NA = noncareer appointment

FT = fixed term appointment, with length of appointment indicated

Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (PA)
Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy (PAS)
Associate Directors, Office of Science and Technology Policy (PAS)
President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PA)
Chairman, Council of Economic Advisers (PAS)
Chairman, Council on Environmental Quality (PAS)
Director and Deputy Director, National Economic Council (PA)
Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs (PA)
Associate Directors, Office of Management and Budget (NA)
Administrator, OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (PAS)
Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics (PAS)
Under Secretary for Food Safety (PAS)
Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services (PAS)
Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere/Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (PAS)
Director, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) (PAS)
Director, Bureau of the Census (PAS)
Director, Defense Research and Engineering (PAS)
Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (PAS)
Director, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) (NA)
Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, Office of the Secretary of Defense (PAS)
Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs (PAS)
Assistant Secretary for Networks and Information Integration/
Chief Information Officer Assistant to the Secretary for Nuclear and Chemical and Biological Defense Programs (PAS)
Director, Institute of Education Sciences (PAS)
Under Secretary of Science (PAS)
Under Secretary for Energy and Environment (PAS)
Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (PAS)
Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management (PAS)
Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy (PAS)
Assistant Secretary of Nuclear Energy (PAS)
Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) (PAS)
Principal Deputy Administrator of NNSA (PAS)
Assistant Secretary for Health, Office of Public Health and Sciencec (PAS)
Director, National Institutes of Health (PAS)
Director, National Cancer Institute (PA)
Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (PAS)
Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration (PAS)
Under Secretary for Science and Technology (PAS)
Assistant Secretary for Water and Science (PAS)
Assistant Secretary, Fish and Wildlife and Parks (PAS)
Director, US Fish and Wildlife Service (PAS)
Director, US Geological Survey (PAS)
Commissioner, Bureau of Labor Statistics (PAS)
Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environment and Scientific Affairs (PAS)
Advisor to the Secretary for Science and Technology (NA)
[FT = 4 years]
Administrator, Research and Innovative Technology Administration (PAS)
Under Secretary for Health (PAS)
[FT = 4 years]
Assistant Administrator for Research and Development (PAS)
Administrator (PAS)
Deputy Administrator (PAS)
Director (PAS)
[FT = 6 years]
Deputy Director (PAS)
National Science Board (PAS)
[FT = 6 years]
Chair and Commissioners (PAS)
[FT = 5 years]

Examples of Scientific and Technical Federal Advisory Commitees, by Origin and Purpose

President Secretary/Independent Agency Administrator Congress Agency Executive
Science for policy President’s Council on Bioethics EPA Science Advisory Board EPA Clean Air Act Advisory Committee CDC/HRSA Advisory Committee on HIV and STD Prevention and Treatment
Policy for science National Science Board DOD Defense Science Board DHS Science and Technical Advisory Committee NOAA Science Advisory Board
Program evaluation and direction President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology DOE National Petroleum Council NRC Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards DOI Land Processes DAAC Science Advisory Panel
Proposal review Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board’s Negotiated Rulemaking Advisory Committee NSF Advisory Panel for Integrative Activities USDA Collaborative Forest Restoration Program Advisory Panel NIH Genes, Genomes and Genetic Sciences Integrated Review Group
Event driven Presidential Commission on Space Shuttle Challenger Accident Columbia Accident Investigation Board National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States DOI Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Public Advisory Committee

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