AAAS President and the Washington Post Muddy the Waters on Burrowing

November 25th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Saturday’s Washington Post has an article about the recent moves of several political appointees into senior civil service positions.  Called ‘burrowing,’ the process is not new to the current administration.  However, examples of personnel decisions in this administration that suggest ideology trumps competence have drawn extra attention to these moves.  A preliminary examination of these cases suggests that qualified federal civil servants may have been passed over for these positions, which is troubling.  However, the slant of the article, which focuses on science qualifications, does nobody any favors.  In the piece, AAAS President (and oceanographer) James McCarthy complains about the lack of scientific qualifications for people making resource decisions.

While the criticism has a point, it’s at best tangentially relevant.  Whether a person is the best qualified applicant to fill the job is a separate question from whether the job requires someone with a scientific background.  At a certain level in any large structure, management skills become more and more important, and unfortunately the article doesn’t spell out the positions in sufficient detail to know whether that applies in this case.  Similarly, it doesn’t make a good case, one way or the other, about the need for scientific credentials in these positions.  There’s also the pesky insistence within the argument that I find counterproductive – that any position involved with science demands a Ph.D. scientist to fill the position.

As I mentioned before, management skills come into play in many of these positions, and those skills do not necessarily coincide with scientific or technological skills or talent.  Even those perfectly capable of managing a lab (small l) aren’t necessarily well suited to managing a multi-million dollar research agency or a national lab.  Are the research administrators at your university the top scientists in their disciplines?  How does the answer to that question relate to how they perform as research administrators?  Richard Feynman and Craig Ventner are top-caliber scientists, but I don’t think either would be (or would have been) great NIST, NSF or NIH directors.   As you might guess, I’m not sold on the notion that the best scientists in the country should automatically be the short list for OSTP Director or President’s science adviser.  Appointing scientists to top agency leadership positions does not guarantee that the agency will respect scientific norms and processes.  EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson was a career scientist elevated to lead the agency, and many consider his tenure a disaster for scientific research informing policymaking.

Dr. McCarthy’s remarks have not helped address a potential problem of political favoritism.  And the Post needed some additional editorial guidance to avoid twisting the lede like they did.  I take some small comfort that the article runs in a Saturday paper and that fewer people than normal might read it.

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