Ego v. Efficiency at the U.S. National Science Board

Confirmed critics? Dan Arvizu had some unhappy campers on the science board after Congress altered its status.

Dennis Schroeder/National Science Foundation

Never underestimate the size of a science policymaker’s ego.

A new U.S. law that exempts 169 presidential appointees from having to be confirmed by the Senate has ruffled feathers at the National Science Board, the oversight body for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The 24-member board is now part of that new category of people who can take office immediately after they say "yes" to an invitation from the White House. But some members are afraid that the law, designed to allow the Senate to operate more efficiently, will also diminish their clout in Washington policy circles.

Warning to readers: Those of you still relying on a high school civics class to understand how the federal government operates may be troubled to find that the rest of this story clashes with the description in your textbooks.

The Senate's constitutional authority to "advise and consent" was designed to provide a partial check on the power of the executive branch. And the number of positions remained relatively small. But their ranks have ballooned in recent years. There are now an estimated 1450 positions across the government requiring confirmation—five times the number that existed when John F. Kennedy was president and 50% more than when Bill Clinton left office. "For those of us concerned about the size of government, [that growth] is alarming," says Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), a co-sponsor of the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011, the bipartisan measure to reduce the number of confirmed positions that President Barack Obama signed into law on 10 August (PL 112-166).

Aides to the senators who wrote the legislation and shepherded it through Congress say that their bosses certainly weren't targeting the science board when they drew up the list. Rather, the lawmakers were simply trying to extricate the Senate from a process that had spun out of control.

In fact, board members have long lamented the often arduous and always time-consuming process of winning Senate confirmation following their nomination. But board chair Dan Arvizu admits that some were very upset when they first learned about the proposed changes.

In part, that's because Senate confirmation has also become a status symbol among some Washington bureaucrats: Those holding such positions are more likely to be called to testify before Congress, as well as granted access to internal discussions that are off-limits to lower-ranking colleagues. Removal of the confirmation requirement could be seen as diminution of influence.

In particular, Arvizu says the board was troubled by language in a report accompanying the bill (S. 679) that described the types of jobs affected by the change. Most were positions handling legislative and public affairs at an agency, he says, or overseeing its business and management activities. "There were also several part-time boards with advisory roles."

The problem, he explains, is that "we don’t fit under any of those categories." The board has the statutory authority to set policy for NSF and to advise the president and Congress on national research and science education issues. "So [the report language] led some people to think Congress had something else in mind when it included the board on the list of positions," he says.

Arvizu says board members' concerns subsided, however, once they were briefed on the rationale for the legislation, which was passed by the Senate in June 2011 and by the House of Representatives 3 weeks ago. "I do not think there was any intent by Congress to change how the board operates," says Arvizu, whose day job is director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. (Individual board members declined to comment and deferred to Arvizu.)

Appointees also stand to gain from the change, according to Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), another co-sponsor of the legislation. The confirmation process can leave a nominee in limbo for months or even years, and can have an ugly side, he says: It exposes the private lives of "distinguished people" to public scrutiny in an unseemly process that he calls "innocent until nominated."

The uncertainty, delays, and added scrutiny can lead some civic-minded scientists to rebuff a presidential appointment, say many who have been through the process. But for most people, the prestige associated with such jobs more than compensates for any personal discomfort that must be endured. And bruised egos, say many observers, lay at the root of the science board’s objections.

Four associate director positions within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy were also slated to be exempt from Senate confirmation. But sources tell ScienceInsider that Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) objected on the grounds that the officeholders were instrumental in setting science policy and should continue to be subject to Senate review. The bill’s sponsors complied with her request to strike them from the list in exchange for her promise to support the overall package.

She did, and the Democrat-led Senate approved the bill by a vote of 79 to 20, with every Democrat and a majority of the body’s 46 Republicans voting "yes." There was similar bipartisan support in the Republican-led House, although slightly more Republicans voted "no" than "yes" as the bill passed by a margin of 261 to 116.