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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Politics in Presidential Appointments to Science Advisory Committees: 48 Nobel Prize winners endorsed John Kerry for president in 2004, said he'd restore science to its appropriate place in government and the White House-R. Pielke, Jr., 2004

6/22/2004, "48 Nobel Prize winners slam Bush, back Kerry," Chicago Tribune, Jill Zuckman, Denver
7/9/2004, "Presidential Appointments to Science Advisory Committees," Roger Pielke, Jr.,

"Should political considerations play a formal role in the empanelling of federal science advisory committees?

Lets consider three possible answers to this question.

First possible response: No. Political considerations should not play a formal role in the empanelling of federal science advisory committees.

This is the perspective of The Union of Concerned Scientists whose report released this week recommends a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”:

“… it should be forbidden to ask scientists and other experts being vetted for membership on scientific advisory committees about their political or policy positions, let alone how they have voted in past elections.” And the Bush Administration would seem to agree, with Presidential science advisor John Marburger stating: “The accusation of a litmus test that must be met before someone can serve on an advisory panel is preposterous.”
But in reality, whether or not you ask a prospective panelist about their political or policy perspectives, for several reasons such considerations cannot be avoided. 

First, scientists are both human beings and citizens, and as such have values and views. Frequently, scientists express these views in a public forum. Consequently, whether they are asked or not, many scientists’ views on politics and policy are well known. .

For instance, we now know 48 Nobel Prize winners who have endorsed John Kerry for president. It is possible to convene a hypothetical advisory panel of people who happen to have signed this letter without formally asking them about their political views. Second, advisory panels, loosely described, are routinely comprised with political and policy perspectives at the fore.

Examples include the Supreme Court, Congressional witness lists, and the 9/11 Investigative Panel, to name just a few. In no other area that I can think of is it even plausibly considered that politics can or should be ignored. Third, how would you evaluate whether or not a policy focused on keeping political considerations out of the scientific advisory process is actually working? Presumably, you’d need some information that shows that the composition of panels is not statistically different than random with respect to panelists political and policy views, which would require knowing what those views are in the first place. Finally, for panels appointed by the President, it is naïve to think that these panels would deal purely with science. Such panels are convened to provide guidance on policy. (The President has no business anyway organizing panels focused solely on science, that is the job of program officers in federal agencies looking for peer-reviewers and is outside of the FACA process in any case.) To suggest that policy perspectives should not be considered when creating panels to provide guidance on policy makes absolutely no sense.

A policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” will make it more difficult to see the role played by politics in the advisory committee appointment process, but it won’t get rid of politics. It just won’t work.

Second possible response: Yes. Political considerations should play a formal role in the empanelling of federal science advisory committees.

What if federally advisory panels were to be convened in the same way that Congressional hearing witness lists are put together? That is, what if the majority governing party could invite some portion and the minority party could invite a portion? This could be done with parity in mind, or by giving the majority party a slight advantage. After all, the President routinely appoints people to head agencies that oversee science, based, in part at least, on their political perspectives.

So long as the scientist in question is an excellent scientist, what would be wrong with considering their scientific views? All else being equal, should George Bush be able to choose a Republican scientist for a seat on a panel over a Democrat scientist?...

My view is that formally including political and policy perspectives as a criterion of empanelment would have the effect of further politicizing scientific advisory committees because it would encourage the appointment of people with strong ideological perspectives. Left out of the mix would be the honest broker types who we depend upon to keep the ideologues of all stripes in check. It would not be a good idea to formalize political criteria in the empanelment process.

So that brings us to the third possible response: We have asked the wrong question!!

More important than the composition of the panel is the charge that they are given and the processes that they employ to meet their goals. The current debate over advisory panels reinforces the old myth that we can separate science from politics and policy, and then ensure that the science is somehow untainted by the impurities of the rest of society. Yet, at the same time we want science to be relevant to policy. A better approach would be to create processes that facilitate the connections of science with policy making, rather than trying to somehow keep them separate. We can do this by clearly distinguishing policy from politics. I’ve got more to say on this (a foreshadowing of coming attractions …), but for now have a look at this essay:

Pielke, Jr., R. A., Nature, 2002: Policy, politics and perspective. Nature 416:368., Posted on July 9, 2004 01:02 PM"


6/22/2004, "48 Nobel Prize winners slam Bush, back Kerry," Chicago Tribune, Jill Zuckman, Denver

"Forty-eight Nobel laureates denounced President Bush on Monday for "compromising our future" when it comes to scientific research and the environment, and said Sen. John Kerry "will restore science to its appropriate place in government and bring it back into the White House.""...


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I'm the daughter of an Eagle Scout (fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Mets) and a Beauty Queen.