Status Report

AIP FYI #107: Rep. Vern Ehlers on S&T Advisors in Policy Making

By SpaceRef Editor
August 10, 2004
Filed under ,

As reviewed in FYI #106, the National Academies of Sciences
Committee on Ensuring the Best Science & Technology Presidential and
Federal Advisory Committee Appointments met on July 21. One of the
speakers at this meeting was Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI). Ehlers, one
of two physicists in Congress, is the chairman of the Subcommittee
on Environment, Technology and Standards. The full text of Ehlers’
prepared remarks follow. FYI #108 will provide the full comments
of Rep. Henry Waxman.


“Thank you for inviting me to testify on the need to ensure that the
best and brightest scientists and engineers are willing, and able,
to participate in the national policymaking process.

“Science and technology surround us–computers and communications
devices, advances in food production and medicine, as well as
breakthroughs in energy and defense–all rely on innovations in
science and technology. These advances drive our economy, secure
the nation, and improve our daily lives. They also frequently pose
significant ethical and societal questions that may require
regulation or policy solutions. Scientific information is a key
consideration in making policy decisions. However, many additional
factors–including societal values, economic costs and political
judgments–must also be included in the final decision.

“Since science is an important component of policymaking, it is
imperative that government officials and lawmakers have access to
the best technical advice and expertise. Scientists,
mathematicians, engineers and health professionals make significant
policy contributions as members of Presidential and federal advisory
committees. We must ensure that these positions are filled by
highly-qualified, dedicated persons of high integrity.
Unfortunately, turnover in science policy positions is high and the
pool of scientists willing to enter government service is dwindling.

The reluctance of scientists to participate in the policy-making
process negatively affects the government’s ability to make good
science policy decisions. We need scientists to enter government
service not only as appointees, but also as elected officials,
particularly in Congress. To encourage this change, we must address
systemic and bureaucratic barriers that hinder scientists’
participation in the political process.

“Thus, I am very pleased that your Committee will scrutinize the
current appointment process to determine the areas in which it
serves us well and to pinpoint those needing improvement. In
addition, I encourage the Committee to examine the relationship
between the government and scientific communities as a possible
barrier to scientist participation. I believe that there is a lack
of trust and understanding between these communities. This lack of
trust, coupled with bureaucratic barriers, deters scientists from
entering government service. We must make every effort to identify
and eliminate these problems.


“In choosing scientists, engineers and health professionals to serve
on presidential and federal advisory committees, a single, guiding
principle should be applied: select the most-qualified person for
the job. To be qualified, the candidate must be a top-notch
scientist and a respected expert in his or her field. However,
scientific knowledge alone cannot be the only criterion. Above all,
the appointee should be a person of high integrity who is willing to
display that integrity in making difficult decisions. The candidate
must also possess a number of skills that are necessary for success
in the political arena. These include an understanding of, and a
willingness to work within, the political process, good
communication and networking skills, and the ability to negotiate
and compromise–on issues, not principles. In the case of
Presidential appointments, it is important that the scientist be in
tune with the philosophy of the appointing President.

“Decision-making in the Political Realm

“I noted earlier that there is an air of distrust between the
scientific and government communities. Perhaps “distrust” is too
strong a characterization for the lack of understanding and the
misgivings that pervades the current scientific and government
nexus. Whatever word you choose, the atmosphere is chilly, and the
impact on the decision-making process is negative.

“I believe these problems stem from a failure in education and
understanding. The political and scientific fields are very
divergent, and, unfortunately, very few people understand the
intimate workings of both. While we have done a poor job of
educating one another about the thought processes and value systems
that govern our respective fields, we appear to have learned even
less about their intersections and boundaries. This gives rise to
misperceptions and missed opportunities to work together to create
good science policy. We must each learn the fundamentals of the
other field government officials must understand science, its
methods and limits; scientists must study the policy process and
willingly participate.

“I am not suggesting here that scientists be politicians. I am
simply noting that scientists must understand the political field,
admit that the scientific and political arenas are inherently
different, and be prepared to work within the boundaries and rules
of the political environment. This means that the scientists must
be in touch (even in tune) with the political realities around
them. They must also accept that scientific evidence and ideas are
but one input in the calculus that gives rise to good science policy
decisions it is both arrogant and naïve of the scientific community
to pretend otherwise. Only by understanding the political process
can scientists fully integrate science into decision-making. I am
not suggesting that scientists must ‘sell out.’ Quite the contrary,
scientists who understand the process will be more effective in
making sure scientific evidence and expertise is properly evaluated
and considered.

“The onus is on all of us in government and science to increase our
level of understanding. We must foster the mutual respect necessary
to ensure that we successfully work together to improve science
policy decisions.

“Bureaucratic Barriers

“Recruiting scientists for governmental work is a significant
challenge for a variety of reasons. The dearth of qualified
candidates is due in part to the inherent difficulties associated
with the job. Being a member of a federal advisory panel is a
thankless job. It involves long hours and hard work, takes time
away from research and family, and offers considerable
frustrations. Hard work and challenges do not normally discourage
scientists from pursuing an important mission; however, there are
several additional bureaucratic disincentives to entering government
service. “These obstacles include:

“Unattractive jobs
Low pay
Perceived lack of government effectiveness
Low professional prestige associated with public service
Costs associated with divestitures to adhere to conflict of interest

“Negative impacts on current or future career advancement
Disruption of research
Government service is not valued by universities or industry for
tenure or advancement
Post-government employment rules restrict subsequent advancement and

“Complex and opaque vetting and confirmation process
Can last for extensive time period
Requires excruciating financial disclosure
Lack of privacy
Significant disruption of research and private life even before
government service

“These disadvantages (coupled with the inherent difficulties of the
job) discourage many scientists from entering public service.

“To ensure that more highly-qualified scientists and engineers be
considered for, and accept, government appointments, we must address
these systemic disincentives. We have been struggling with many of
these problems for years. Although pay scales have improved
somewhat, there is still a great deal of difficulty in navigating
the conflict of interest and post-employment regulations. This is
due in part to the piece-meal nature of the current laws governing
these issues. It would be ideal to codify the requirements in a
single law. In considering this option, we must recognize the very
real difficulties associated with repealing, updating and
consolidating so many pieces of the U.S. Code.

“Addressing the perception that government is ineffective and
combating the low prestige attached to government service will be
very difficult. Tackling these will require a great deal of time,
attention, education and mutual respect between the scientific and
governmental communities.

“We need to launch an effective public relations campaign to address
scientists’ concerns and emphasize the benefits of entering
government service. There are benefits, after all, or I would not
be here. Scientists working in the policy arena, gain new
perspectives and have the pleasure of serving the nation. In
addition, we have the opportunity to tackle new challenges and
affect change on a national level. For example, I have worked for
many years, with considerable success, to increase the funding for
basic research at the National Science Foundation and the Department
of Energy’s Office of Science. This has been a difficult row to
hoe, but one that is crucial to the future economic and national
security of the nation.

“To address the complex vetting process, I suggest that the
government create a well-defined and coherent process for scientific
appointments. This process must be transparent and easily followed
by applicants. There should be a single, clear implementation
process, from initial application through vetting, security
clearance and confirmation. The government should supply feedback
and status reports to help applicants gauge their progress. While
appointments are often considered political plums, this is not true
for many scientists. In order to encourage scientists to join
government ranks, we need to make sure they are fully informed
throughout the process.

“Beyond the bureaucratic fixes, we must improve communication and
interaction between the government and scientific communities.
There must be a conscious and good-faith effort on the part of both
communities to better understand each other, and improve the way we
work together to ensure that good science policies are enacted. We
need to lay a foundation of mutual respect and common involvement
only in this way will we attract the best and brightest scientists
to public service.

“Thank you again for the opportunity to address this very important
issue. I look forward to receiving the Committee’s final report and
working with you to strengthen the presidential appointment
process. I would gladly answer any questions you may have.”

Richard M. Jones

Media and Government Relations Division

The American Institute of Physics

(301) 209-3094

SpaceRef staff editor.