Why Scientists Shun Washington

Why don't more scientists want to work as top officials in Washington? The answer, according to a panel of veteran government policy-makers, is a lack of attention to science by incoming administrations, a slow appointment process, and outdated rules to prevent conflicts of interest. The problem is particularly acute among high-tech industry executives, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, which urges the next president to give industry a bigger place at the policy table.

The eight-page report urges the incoming Administration to include scientists on its transition team and to appoint a presidential science adviser early enough to play a role in screening for other top positions. For example, President Reagan's decision to wait until May 1981 to appoint his first science adviser, George Keyworth, "was a big problem at the start," notes panelist John McTague, a retired Ford Motor Co. executive and acting presidential science adviser during Reagan's second term. "His first two science budgets were woefully inadequate, not out of malice but out of ignorance."

The science adviser is one of 50 science and technology slots, from the director of the National Institutes of Health to the Undersecretary for Technology in the Commerce Department, that the panel, chaired by University of Arkansas dean of engineering Mary Good, labeled as "most urgent" of rapid appointment. But, the report concludes, the screening process has grown so cumbersome that it deters potential hires. Part of the problem are rules that require divestiture of financial stakes that could be seen as a potential conflict of interest. To avoid these problems, the panel calls for the creation of a bipartisan panel that would examine ways "to reduce unreasonable financial and professional losses" for nominees.

Industry officials don't disagree that recruitment is a serious issue. But many say that considerations such as salary levels and career prospects are bigger disincentives to government service. "It's not a career path for most people in Silicon Valley," says Tim Newell, an aide to science adviser Jack Gibbons during Clinton's first term and currently managing director at E*Offering, an Internet investment banking firm in San Francisco.

In addition, it's possible to shape government policies without having to step away from a full-time job, by serving as a part-time adviser, says Gretchen Beyer of TechNet, a California-based organization that lobbies on behalf of high-tech industries. "Our members find that they can be very effective that way."

Related sites
The NAS report