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Science and Technology Leadership in American Government: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments
talent pool of scientific and engineering expertise available to lead the national R&D enterprise is therefore mostly in the private sector. Although the federal government has access to significant basic and applied research expertise in its own career service, it is particularly dependent on the business sector for the technological expertise needed to oversee large-scale engineering programs in the energy, space, and defense areas. Accordingly, since World War II, the federal government has relied for S&T leadership on the invigorating flow of highly qualified scientists and engineers from (and back to) the colleges and universities, national laboratories, high-technology firms, and other private organizations.
This report documents some disturbing trends in recruitment and retention for presidentially appointed S&T positions. It is taking longer and longer to fill them, in part because of delays in the nomination and confirmation process, such as more detailed financial disclosure requirements and longer background investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). It also takes longer because more and more candidates turn down the opportunity to serve. Tenure is relatively short among those who do take positions.
Recruitment and retention difficulties arise from several sources, which are addressed in this report. The panel is most concerned about recent changes in federal conflict-of-interest and procurement laws that threaten to curtail sharply, even virtually to halt, the movement of top scientific and technical personnel between the government and the private sector. This in turn would impair the flow of communication and cooperation between the government and the private sector that is essential for American technological excellence. We are now at the point where either these laws and regulations must be substantially changed to permit and encourage the best scientists and engineers to serve in the federal government, or we must adopt a different system—e.g., a very highly paid and well-educated elite corps of such officials who spend their entire careers in government service.
This panel has strong doubts that such a new personnel system would work nearly as well as the system that has made American science and technology so successful. The smooth functioning of such a new personnel system would be an entirely uncertain proposition. But doing nothing to change the current system risks a clear, prompt, and substantial decline in the government's ability to deal with scientific and technical issues.