Scientists have long sought to ensure that public policy decision makers have access to the best available scientific and technical information, and that this information is used to inform public policy decisions. According to many scientists, however, the process by which the White House and Congress receive scientific advice is in need of reform. On the heels of the release of the latest National Academies report for improving executive branch science and technology advisory panels and the process for recruiting and retaining senior executive branch appointees responsible for scientific programs (see: AIBS Public Policy Report for 22 November 2004), the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) has issued "Flying Blind: The Rise, Fall, and Possible Resurrection of Science Policy Advice in the United States."
Henry Kelley, an author of the report and president of FAS, has said that the report is not meant as a political commentary. Kelley told the Chronicle of Higher Education that "We [FAS] throw rocks at a lot of different people. There is a lot of blame to go around. Our interest here is not to attack the current administration." The report contends that while the need for effective science and technology advice continues to increase, "the infrastructure for providing such help is in a state of crisis." Acknowledging that technical analysis is almost never sufficient to make wise choices, "absent competent, timely, targeted scientific and technical analysis, these decisions will depend on unchallenged assertions by special interests and ideologues." A real and negative consequence will be poorly designed programs and costly mistakes.
Examples of how the scientific advisory process has been weakened at the highest levels of government include Congress' decision to disband the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1996, and in the current administration the position of science advisor seemingly lacks the same status and proximity to the President as previous advisors have enjoyed (i.e., title and an office in the West Wing of the White House).
The report proposes actions for Congress and the White House. Congress is called upon to recognize that while the National Academies provide a valuable and necessary function, their role is not sufficient. Congress should "start a significant effort with OTA's ability to assemble external expertise and conduct detailed analysis of complex technical subjects as a distinct organization within GAO [Government Accountability Office] reporting directly to the GAO director." As for the President, the report calls for a strengthened role for existing White House-level science organizations and the presidential science advisor. More specifically, the President should seek passage of legislation to "(a) establish a strong National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) managed by a civilian executive secretary appointed by the President, formalizing the role of the Presidential science and Technology advisory; and (b) reauthorize the Office of Science and Technology Policy as an office that would secure independent advice through independent advisory boards, conduct timely assessments of science and technology policy issues using both internal staff and sponsoring studies in the National Academies and possibly other organizations." Other recommendations are also presented. The report is currently available online at http://www.fas.org/main/home.jsp.
Among the growing list of science and technology related personnel changes being announced for President Bush's second term is Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science. On 1 December 2004, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton announced that she had accepted the resignation of Bennett Raley who has held the post since 2001. The Assistant Secretary for Water and Science discharges the duties of the Secretary with the authority and direct responsibility to carry out the statutory mandate to manage and direct programs that support the development and implementation of water, mineral, and science policies and assist the development of economically and environmentally sound resource activities. The Assistant Secretary oversees the programs of the Bureau of Reclamation and the United States Geological Survey. In accepting Raley's resignation, Secretary Norton commended Raley for his work on western water issues.
Following Bennett Raley's resignation, Secretary Norton named Tom Weimer Acting Assistant Secretary for Water and Science. Weimer has served as the principal deputy assistant secretary for the past three and a half years. Weimer has eighteen years of federal service and previously served as Chief of Staff to former Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, Jr. Secretary Norton said of Weimer, "Tom has a wealth of experience and I am confident in his ability to take on this position. Tom has been with us since July 2001 and I have come to rely on his judgment and his scientific expertise on a broad range of issues." Weimer has served as professional staff for the House Committees on Interior and Science, as well as legislative director for National Laboratory Affairs at the University of California. Weimer received bachelors and masters degrees in systems engineering from Harvey Mudd College and the master of electrical engineering degree from the University of Washington.
"The number of species officially listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is 1261 and still rising. Nine species have gone extinct, and only 8 domestic species have been recovered and delisted. ON one point, both supporters and critics of the ESA agree: The act has thus far failed to achieve its goal of conserving and recovering species threatened with extinction. How best to achieve recovery is currently the subject of great contention among policymakers, managers, scholars, and scientists."
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