The transition of political appointees to permanent civil servant positions, a process known as “burrowing”, is a typical practice in the waning days of any presidential administration. However, many congressional Democrats are concerned with the number of Bush administration appointees that have received career positions, particularly in science agencies, where they can potentially politicize the decisions made by those agencies. Gary Bass, executive director at OMB Watch, explains why the practice of burrowing is problematic, “Civil service is supposed to be neutral, and it’s supposed to do its work regardless of what administration is in power.”

According to the federal Office of Personnel Management, since 1 March 2008 at least 20 Bush political appointees have secured career civil servant posts. These include Kathie Olsen, Todd Harding, Jeffrey T. Salmon, and Erik Akers; all Bush appointees who have received career positions at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Energy (DOE)’s Office of Science, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), respectively. There is concern that some political appointees who have secured positions in scientific agencies are under-qualified for the job duties and were selected at the expense of more suited applicants. For example, Todd Harding is a 30-year-old political appointee with a bachelor’s degree in government who has stated he will be working on “space-based science using satellites for geostationary and meteorological data” at NOAA.

In a 16 January 2009 memorandum to the National Science Foundation, NSF director Arden Bement announced that Dr. Kathie Olsen, an August 2005 Bush appointee to the NSF position of Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer, was reassigned to the position of Senior Advisor in the Office of Information and Resource Management. In this capacity, the memo states that Olsen will be involved in activities such as “strengthening merit review and interdisciplinary research processes, workforce planning, Program Officer training and development, and succession planning.” Dr. Cora Marrett will replace Dr. Olsen as Acting Deputy Director.

To address burrowing concerns, the House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight has announced that it will conduct an investigation to determine if Bush political appointees who have transitioned to career civil servant positions are politicizing scientific decisions. Representative Brad Miller (D-NC) is the chair of the subcommittee that will lead the investigation.

 


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