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New President Should Quickly Appoint Science Adviser

Neal Lane at 14 Sept Baker Institute event


Neal Lane, senior fellow of science and technology policy at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy | Andrea Korte/AAAS

The nation’s incoming president needs to move quickly to appoint a respected scientist or engineer to serve as the next science adviser to ensure immediate input on issues related to science, according to recommendations laid out in a report from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy released on 14 September.

“As soon as the president arrives, he or she is going to be met with a whole slew of issues: unresolved matters that have to do with science and technology,” said Neal Lane, senior fellow of science and technology policy at Houston’s Baker Institute, at a press conference announcing the recommendations.

Lane, who served as science adviser to President Bill Clinton and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from 1998 to 2001, said the next president will confront issues requiring scientific and technological advice immediately after the 8 November elections.

“Science and technology are embedded in almost every issue that the president deals with,” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of AAAS and publisher of the Science family of journals, who also spoke at the 14 September event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Holt said the incoming president’s science adviser needs to be quickly integrated into the administration’s decision-making and not just on topics with an obvious science connection like infectious disease response, environmental stewardship, and energy security. Contrary to what many may think, the purpose of the science adviser is not to serve the “science constituency,” reasoned Holt. 

Rush Holt at 14 Sept Baker Institute event


Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS and publisher of the Science family of journals | Andrea Korte/AAAS

“What is often forgotten is that science and technology are embedded in issues of justice and diplomacy and social welfare and agriculture,” added Holt. The science adviser and the OSTP should be involved in decisions under consideration in any of those areas, he said.  

The incoming president should tap the next science adviser soon after the election, Lane said, adding that the person holding the post should be given the title assistant to the president for science and technology, a position that reports directly to the president, and be nominated to be director of the OSTP – a position that requires Senate confirmation.

The OSTP is responsible for advising the president on issues of science and technology, collaborates with other White House offices, informs Congress on the state of science and technology, and manages both the cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), an advisory group of external science and engineering experts.

The Baker Institute’s recommendations urge the incoming president to ensure that OSTP has sufficient leadership, resources, and political access necessary to effectively handle its multiple responsibilities. Lane called on the president to name up to four OSTP assistant directors, house the office in close proximity to the White House, and include senior OSTP members in high-level meetings.

The president should also appoint a diverse and multidisciplinary group of science and technology experts to serve on PCAST and reestablish the NSTC, according to the recommendations. Naming a White House science adviser soon after the election would give the next president an adviser as he or she works to fill cabinet, sub-cabinet and senior agency positions related to science and technology, said the report.

The report also said the new science adviser should view his or her role broadly. In addition to providing confidential, unbiased advice to the president and relaying policy information to other White House offices, the science adviser should work with the Office of Management and Budget in developing the science and technology budget. The science adviser should ensure that the OSTP staff have government policy and subject-matter expertise needed to work closely with other White House offices and federal agencies, Lane said.

“It’s really critically important that you’re able to convey accurately what the president’s policy is on a matter and why the president feels this way or makes this decision,” Lane said.

While the recommendations call for OSTP to develop the science and technology strategy within the first 100 days of the new administration, the speakers stressed that the bipartisan report is intended to put in place a structure to facilitate science policymaking, not to advocate any particular policy position.

In stressing the importance of the prompt naming of a science adviser, Holt reminded participants that former President George W. Bush did not have a science adviser in place at the time of Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, nor during the anthrax attacks that followed. The president could have benefited from “a powerful, recognized, highly competent science adviser,” Holt said.

By contrast, President Barack Obama named John Holdren – now the longest-serving science adviser in history – to his post in December 2008, even ahead of some cabinet appointments, allowing Holdren to provide valuable input on the 2009 economic stimulus package. “While that discussion was underway, the science adviser was at the right hand of the president,” Holt said.

Holdren helped the president understand the integral role of science in economic recovery, Holt added, noting that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included more than more than $20 billion for scientific research.

“Science and technology are indeed the engine for development and growth here in this country and around the world and it very much affects the quality of life of Americans,” Holt said.

[Associated image: Mark Fayloga via DVIDSHUB/Flickr CC BY 2.0]