Reminder: Just Because The Person’s a Scientist…

December 29th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Doesn’t mean they’ll be a good scientific appointment.

The best (or worst, depending on how you frame this) example remains career scientist and current EPA head Stephen Johnson.  For evidence, take a gander at this recent profile in the Philadelphia Inquirer (H/T: Reality Base).  Saying anything more might just be piling on.

Unfortunately, the harder sell is the inverse: that just because someone isn’t a scientist doesn’t mean they’d be a bad scientific appointee.

11 Responses to “Reminder: Just Because The Person’s a Scientist…”

  1. docpine Says:

    I don’t think the Administrator of the EPA counts as a “scientific appointment”.. EPA is a regulatory agency.
    I don’t want to be excessively picky here but I think it is important, especially in this blog, to be careful about what we expect from scientists in different roles, and what exactly the role of “science” and which scientific disciplines in a given activity.
    I would expect the role of science in a regulatory agency would be to inform, but not be the only consideration, in the development and administration of regulations.

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  3. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Not sure what makes for a “good scientific appointment”?

    Are you saying that Johnson was bad because he followed Bush Administration political desires?

    He was bad because EPA didn’t taken certain actions?

    The EPA administrator is a “political appointment” so they are put into that position to implement the political agenda of the sitting administration. From all accounts Johnson in fact did this. Sounds like a good political appointment to me.

    No whether Bush Administration policies had merit is a different question . . .

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  5. David Bruggeman Says:

    I needed to be much more explicit here.

    Neither of you are wrong. I do think that some consider the head of EPA a scientific appointment – in that science is an important part of the work done by the agency. A scientific appointment is often political in the way that Roger describes.

    I don’t agree with the cynical definiton of political appointee that Roger put forth, but I think the current administration has made that definition more operational than the more conventional consideration – someone appointed by an elected official to a particular position.

    Certainly the EPA is a regulatory agency. But they also provide grants and operate laboratory facilities, so I’m not inclined to argue against someone who suggests it’s a scientific agency.

    There is a thought often floating out in science advocacy communities that scientists would necessarily make for better appointments to science agencies. That they would somehow ‘respect science’ more than non-scientists. My initial half-baked thought is that Dr. Johnson is a decent counterexample of this axiom. Clearly I explained it badly.

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  7. docpine Says:

    Hmm. I wonder what agency science wouldn’t be a significant part of… DOD, HEW, Commerce, Agriculture, Interior? They all give out grants and operate lab facilities.. does that make them “science agencies?”. How many labs or contracted research dollars per unit of regulatory responsibility or mission work makes something a “science agency”?

    Also, I didn’t see Roger’s definition of political as “cynical”. When we elect an R, executive branch agencies are more or less required to follow R generated policies and vice versa. Otherwise our federal government bureaucracy would be more chaotic than it currently is.:)

    Finally, as a scientist, I understand the sociology of science. and I have been taught and encouraged to question information and its source. Many non-scientists I work with accept scientific information at face value and do not raise questions unless the studies directly contradict their personal experience. So clearly, it depends on the scientist.

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  9. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Cynical? ;-)

    Is someone whose career has been in the private sector a “business appointment”?

    Is someone whose career has been in law a “legal appointment”?

    How about a senator from New York, a “political political appointment”?

    Scientists are professionals, like many others. But there is no such thing as a “scientific appointment”.

    But perhaps this is semantics — if your general point is that being a scientist or not doesn’t really predict performance on the job, I’d certainly agree.

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  11. docpine Says:

    I also agree with scientist-ness not predicting performance in higher level executive positions in government.
    But I would additionally point out that there are no objective criteria for “good performance.” If you disagree with the last administration’s policies, you and that administration might disagree on an executive’s rating of performance.
    FYI, the OPM criteria for success are:
    Leading Change
    Leading People
    Results Driven
    Business Acumen
    Building Coalitions/Communications

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  13. David Bruggeman Says:

    Roger, the point I mangled so completely was one of semantics. Johnson is a career scientist, so the presumption that could be made is that he would place a high value on scientific information in the performance of his job. The profile I linked to suggests he has not.

    The cynical criticism is that the only performance objective is fulfilling the political agenda of the person with appointing authority. There are job descriptions for these particular positions, and they do not start and end with pleasing the president. While not an official component of checks and balances, some measure of independent judgment and responsibility to the agency and the government (instead of an administration) has been a reasonable expectation. And yes, there have been resignations of officials where the president and that official disagreed on the proper functioning of those positions. There have also been shuttering of offices for similar things (the dismantling of the predecessor of the OSTP comes to mind). But I’d rather have the conflict than blind fealty.

    I understand there is a value judgment here, an ought vs. is consideration. But I reject notions that Hobbes’ (not the tiger) description of the state of nature is in play here. Life may well be nasty, mean, brutish and short, but I don’t think the Executive Branch ought to be, nor was intended to be.

    docpine, this is a bit of a side point, but I think that there is a lot of science (and technology) administered, managed, and implemented in a lot of agencies. There are scientific positions to fill in Ag, Transportation, Justice, and other places, so who would be the best people for those positions could well run under the same principles as for those positions (and agencies). It is a bit of a stretch to claim that we need scientists to head the agencies, but how those prospective agency heads intend to engage with science and technology seems a relevant confirmation hearing question.

    Maybe the big grant money is focused on the big science agencies, but science and technology policy research (or practice) need not be so focused on the usual suspects. It might help the field get out of the little ghettos it finds itself in.

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  15. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    OK, I’ll play along ;-)

    Where is the EPA Administrator’s job description?

    What in that description corresponds to the “valuing of science”?

    How did Johnson fall short of those norms?

    Another perspective — On the climate issue Johnson had a decision to make — to follow the wishes of the President or not. Perhaps both you and I would have preferred that he had followed through on his original actions in opposition to Bush. But he did not. To say that decision indicates that he didn’t value scientific information is just silly. Presumably if Lisa Jackson defers to Obama’s wishes she will be applauded.

    This is all just politics. People who don’t like Bush’s policies will judge Johnson a failure for following them. People who like Obama’s policies will judge Jackson a success for following them, and vice versa in both cases — and similarly in all such situations where the EPA administrator has discretion in decision making. That’s not cynical, just reality ;-)

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  17. docpine Says:

    David, I agree with your point that the “science” parts of agencies are helped by being administered by folks with science experience. The “science parts” have customarily been defined as those who engage in research or hand out funding for research.

    For example, at USDA the head of ARS and CSREES both have a science background. But Johnson is the head of all of EPA, not just the science parts, similar to the Secretary of Agriculture. Agriculture has responsibility for farm programs, Food Stamps, natural resources (NRCS and the Forest Service) and a variety of other programs (Rural Development) would be difficult to conceive of a candidate for Secretary who would have personal knowledge of all these areas.

    I also agree that it would be good for the science policy folks to focus on the lesser known groups of scientists as they may be just as important for the future as the “usual suspects.” (they certainly are in relation to climate change!) I think it is useful for the science policy folks to ask questions like “what scientific disciplines are not considered for the President’s Science Advisor and why?” and “what disciplines are not represented on PCAST and why? And why do there appear to be non-scientists on PCAST? Are certain technologies included and others left out?”

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  19. David Bruggeman Says:


    Oddly enough, scrubbing the EPA website has not resulted in a hit for a job description for the Administrator (or an oath of office). I will keep looking this weekend, cobbling together something from the original legislation or executive order if needed.

    Reading your arguments here, I am inferring (perhaps wrongly) a political perspective that does not have a role for preserving traditional functions of institutions, or for allowing checks and balances within the executive branch. I am having a hard time making the case that this has happened in the EPA. I think I could make a better case (or at least the infractions are clearer) using some non-science focused departments, but then we’d be on a different blog.

    In other words, I do not want nor expect heads of executive branch agencies to hew to the wishes of a President if they deviate from the law, the expected role of the agency, or would achieve some kind of end-run around regulatory or other restrictions. By rescinding a document that Johnson felt had sound science and was within his right and authority to send, he bowed to political pressure and facilitated an end-run around legal procedure. Politics as usual, most likely. Good government? Not at all. If the administration wanted to not act on the report, let the process be in the sunshine, as intended.

    If Ms. Jackson employs similar tactics to Johnson while obtaining a different policy objective, I will be as disappointed with her as I am with him.

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  21. David Bruggeman Says:


    You raise great questions that should be asked, both by researchers and practitioners.

    I do think it interesting that, almost by necessity, large agency heads need to be generalists, yet science policy questions seem stuck on disciplinary perspectives. Even the big science questions have a hard time fitting those silos these days, and it’s been even longer since the big policy questions fit into specific categories.