Litmus Test Script

October 20th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In yesterday’s New York Times Andy Revkin had a valuable article on current controversies related to the Bush Administration and science. The article discussed “litmus tests” for scientists asked to serve on advisory panels:

“Despite three years of charges that it is remaking scientific and medical advisory panels to favor the goals of industry or social conservatives, the White House has continued to ask some panel nominees not only about their political views, but explicitly whether they support Mr. Bush. One recent candidate was Prof. Sharon L. Smith, an expert on Arctic marine ecology at the University of Miami. On March 12, she received a call from the White House. She had been nominated to take a seat about to open up on the Arctic Research Commission, a panel of presidential appointees that helps shape research on issues in the far north, including the debate over oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The woman calling from the White House office of presidential personnel complimented her résumé, Dr. Smith recalled, then asked the first and – as it turned out – only question: “Do you support the president?” “I was taking notes,” Dr. Smith recalled. “I’m thinking I’ve lost my mind. I was in total shock. I’d never been asked that before.” She responded she was not a fan of Mr. Bush’s economic and foreign policies. “That was the end of the interview,” she said. “I was removed from consideration instantly.””

For any scientist who may wish to serve on a presidential advisory panel when asked but don’t appreciate being asked about their political views or doesn’t necessarily agree with the president’s policies, we here at Prometheus offer up the following script for use when the White House Office of Presidential Personnel (WHOPP) comes calling (and please feel free to imagine the WHOPP serving a President Bush or a President Kerry, the script stays the same).

“WHOPP: Dr. Smith, we are calling to explore the possibility of the president appointing you to serve on the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee on So and Such. Your accomplishments and resume are extremely impressive.

Dr. SMITH: Why thank you. I am pleased to be considered for this important committee.

WHOPP: As part of our process of empanelment we would like to ask you a few questions …

Dr. SMITH: Of course, go right ahead …

WHOPP: First, Do you support the president?

Dr. SMITH: Of course I support the president. As a recipient of many millions of dollars in federal support for my research on this topic of critical national importance over the past many years I strongly believe that scientists have an obligation to support elected officials by helping to connect scientific and technological expertise with the needs of decision making. While the responsibility for deciding on particular courses of action remains with government officials, I do believe that advisory panels can help to provide some insight to those choices. So I would very much value an opportunity to contribute back to the federal government by serving on a presidential advisory panel and supporting the president in this important role.”

We’ve discussed here before that the issue of presidential appointments is much more complicated than asking or not asking about political affiliations. But let’s be honest, any scientist who cannot handle a question about their political leanings in a politic manner probably doesn’t deserve to be on the panel anyway. The option is always available to tell the WHOPP that oppose (or support, as the case may be) the president politically in whatever direct and colorful language that you’d like. But of course for those who express political opposition you’ve then just given the WHOPP a solid basis for removing you from consideration because of concern that YOUR strongly-held political views will interfere with your role on the panel. Ironic, huh? So long as WHOPPs and the like want to bring political considerations explicitly into the empanelment process, we here at Prometheus recommend that scientists of all political persuasions just stick to the script.

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