National Academy of Sciences issues advice to 44th President for filling key science posts


A new National Academy of Sciences report gives good guidance on filling top federal science and technology positions with the best possible candidates. The report lists climate change as a high-priority challenge. We recommend that individuals with a strong understanding of the problems of global climatic disruption be appointed to high-level positions in energy, natural sciences, transportation, land use, and resource management.

Post by Anne Polansky.

The report (a prepublication version), Science and Technology for America’s Progress: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments in the new Administration, by the Committee on Science and Technology in the National Interest, offers sophisticated but practical advice for surmounting administrative and procedural obstacles to recruiting the best and brightest into top S&T posts.  The report lists climate change as one of several high-priority national challenges requiring scientific and engineering prowess. The preface to the report begins:  (emphasis added)

The United States increasingly relies on the strength and vitality of the national science and technology (S&T) enterprise to solve some of today’s most intractable problems. As we become more dependent on advances in science and engineering to meet challenges in national defense, climate change, jobs, disease, energy, economic growth, creating a healthy and affordable food supply, and protecting the environment, few aspects of modern public policy are untouched by S&T. Perhaps at no other time in our history has it been so essential to attract scientists, engineers, and health professionals into the highest levels of public service and to serve as members of the almost 1,000 advisory committees convened to provide independent sources of guidance to inform our public policies. As voting citizens, we need to ensure our elected officials solicit sound and objective scientific advice.

At least half of the 60-plus S&T related positions identified in the Academy report will involve some level of involvement in one aspect or another of climate change:  scientific research; assessment of climate change impacts; analysis and evaluation of adaptation and mitigation strategies; development of energy and other technologies for a carbon-constrained economy and society; and so on.  Most will eventually be faced with the reality that changes in the climate system are impacting the programs they manage. 

As a first order of business, the Committee recommends that the president-elect waste no time in selecting a candidate for the position of Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (APST), who would also serve as the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)—as is the current arrangement.  Advising against protracted vacancies, warning that “lapses in appointments and longstanding vacancies can have deleterious—even dangerous—consequences,” the report emphasizes the importance of streamlining the appointment process from initial contact by the White House to Senate confirmation.  “Accomplished and recognized S&T leaders and professional science, engineering, and health societies” are encouraged to suggest worthy candidates; we are encouraged that several groups are now collecting names of potential candidates for key positions in climate change science and policy. 

The NAS Committee states:

Having an advisor to the president in place is also important to have a voice in deliberations of other key White House offices that intersect with S&T concerns. Examples include the National Security Council, National Economic Council, Domestic Policy Council, Council on Environmental Quality, and the Homeland Security Council. The mandates of the latter groups increasingly involve S&T, and working relationships at senior levels need to be established at the beginning of the administration, perhaps even through joint appointment between OSTP staff and the Councils listed.

We would argue that global climatic disruption will make these relationships even more crucial as the ever-escalating climate change impacts permeate issues of economic security, national and international security, national energy policy, environmental and natural resource management and protection, and so on.   

In an implicit acknowledgment of the tendency of the Bush administration to stack S&T advisory committees with those who may align politically with the Republican Party agenda but lack sufficient S&T credentials, the report warns against attempting to “achieve a balance of policy perspectives” on advisory bodies intended for scientific and technical expertise—- rather, “professionals nominated primarily to provide S&T input should be selected for their scientific and technological knowledge and credentials, for their professional and personal integrity, and their ability to articulate the issues.”  Amen, brothers and sisters in the climate community.  We also concur with the recommendation that the government post on one or more official government websites the specific conflict-of-interest principles that apply to each of the several categories of government positions—- this could make essential watchdog functions a more straightforward task and less of an investigative goose chase.   

Arguing for greater transparency in the vetting and selection process for science and technology experts, the Committee on Science and Technology in the National Interest asserts that: 

The government would be better served by a policy in which the best scientists, engineers, and health professionals are selected because of their expertise with their opinions publicly disclosed than by a policy that excludes them because of their presumed opinions on S&T issues.

Shouldn’t this be obvious?  Unfortunately, it is not.  In addition to the occasional report of one or another federal S&T advisory committee member with too much of an industry bias or axe to grind, we have encountered numerous instances of federal public affairs officers and other high-up officials acting as traffic cops for climate change information, suppressing, delaying, or sabotaging scientific reports and congressional testimony

Overall, the recommendations offered in this document offer sound, practical advice.  In selecting his team to carry us forward into a future in which the weather and climate patterns of the past can no longer be assumed to be valid indicators of future climate conditions affecting the economy and society, we hope the next President will swiftly and skillfully select a set of strong “climate leaders” with honesty, integrity, and dedication to bringing the best scientific and technological intelligence we can muster to bear on the host of climate change challenges we face. 

Thanks to the members of this Committee for their efforts:




JOHN EDWARD PORTER (Chair), Partner, Hogan & Hartson, Washington, DC

RICHARD CELESTE, President, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, Colorado
MARY CLUTTER, Assistant Director, National Science Foundation (retired), Washington, DC
NEAL LANE, Malcolm Gillis University Professor, Rice University, Houston, TX
RICHARD A. MESERVE, President, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, DC
ANNE C. PETERSEN, Professor of Psychology, and Deputy Director, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA
MAXINE L. SAVITZ, Principal, The Washington Advisory Group, LLC, Los Angeles, CA
DEBORAH WINCE-SMITH, President, Council on Competitiveness, Washington, DC Principal Project Staff
RICHARD E. BISSELL, Study Director
NEERAJ GORKHALY, Senior Project Assistant
ALBERT SWISTON, Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellow

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