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<< Back to January 2009 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the January 2009 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 21/No. 1]

Filling Top S&T Posts Key Task For New Administration
by Peter Harsha

The change in presidential administrations in the New Year means more than just a changing of staff within the offices of the White House. The leadership of nearly every federal agency is politically appointed, and a change of administration likely means a change of leadership in every one of those positions and programs—including dozens of leadership positions at key science agencies relevant to computing and in policy-making positions throughout the executive branch.

The impact of those appointments on federal science policy will be significant. Agency directors, for example, often enjoy considerable leeway in implementing the programs under their jurisdiction and the decisions they make can resonate throughout the scientific community in dramatic ways. At the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for example, a change in leadership with the change in administrations in 2001 hastened a shift at the agency away from university-led, fundamental research efforts and towards shorter-term, more development-oriented research that reshaped much of the landscape for federally-supported computing research in very negative ways, according to many within the computing community. The shift in policy helped make the agency into an unattractive place for university researchers to seek funding, which in turn increased the burden on the other federal agency primarily responsible for funding computing research: the National Science Foundation. As a result, when coupled with an increase in the number of computing faculty, the DARPA policy shift pushed NSF into a difficult period where an increasing number of faculty were submitting an increasing number of proposals to the agency, while the agency’s budget remained relatively flat, causing proposal success rates to plummet. As we approach the end of the Bush Administration, the DARPA/NSF share of support for university-led computing research, which had been about 50:50 at the start of the period, is now significantly lopsided, with NSF now supporting 86 percent of computing research at U.S. universities.

With the stakes this high, it makes sense that the computing community, along with much of the general science community, should pay close attention to some key positions to be filled and the transition process itself. As this article goes to press, President-Elect Barack Obama has announced a number of the members of his transition staff, including many of those who will be handling the science and technology-oriented appointments for the new administration. (See here for a complete list.) However, no nominees for those key science positions have yet been named.

It is worth taking a look at some of the key science and technology positions the Obama Administration will have to fill upon taking office. The individuals he appoints to these positions will play a significant role in shaping federal science policy—including federal IT research policy—over the next four years.

Perhaps the primary science appointment for a new Obama Administration will be the President’s Science Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The Director of OSTP has traditionally served as the President’s Science Advisor, though the visibility of the position has changed with administrations. Under President Clinton, for example, the President’s Science Advisor enjoyed a cabinet-level rank, putting the OSTP Director on equal footing with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Trade Representative. Under President Bush, however, the Science Advisor was not a cabinet-level appointment, a move that many in the science community saw as emblematic of a de-emphasis of science within his administration. In October, CRA joined with 180 other science organizations in sending a letter to both presidential campaigns urging that both candidates commit to naming a new Science Advisor by inauguration day January 20, 2009, and re-elevating the Science Advisor to cabinet rank.

The role of the Science Advisor is to advise the President and others in the executive branch on the impacts of science and technology on domestic and international affairs and lead the effort to craft sound science and technology policies and budgets. An elevated science advisor would likely have more clout with which to influence the science budget process. An empowered science advisor would also likely have more success in guiding large, interagency efforts, like President-Elect Obama’s proposal to spend $15 billion per year in order to help the nation achieve energy independence.

Also within OSTP are two other key positions to be filled, the Associate Director and Deputy Director for Technology, and the Associate Director and Deputy Director for Science. Both assist the science advisor in crafting federal science policy and lead a number of executive-branch advisory committees, such as the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST) and the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC). Though PITAC has been incorporated into PCAST under the Bush Administration, it may once again become a free-standing committee.

Within the Department of Defense there are a number of key positions relating to science and technology. The first is the Secretary of Defense, who, while not specifically a science appointee, has the authority for naming the key science and technology appointments who will serve beneath him. President-Elect Obama has already announced that current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will continue in that role through at least the first year of Obama’s term. Gates has proven to be a great supporter of recommitting the Department of Defense to supporting fundamental research efforts at U.S. universities and in the service labs, so his retention bodes well for the continuation of ambitious budget requests already set in motion for defense basic science. In addition, the Obama Administration will consider new nominees for the Director of Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E) and the Director of DARPA. The DDR&E has responsibility for all of defense science and technology, including each of the service labs and defense-wide research in the Office of Secretary of Defense and DARPA. The Director of DARPA obviously oversees the $3 billion a year that agency spends on “bridging the gap” between truly fundamental research and deployable technologies designed to aid the warfighter and preserve America’s technological advantage.

The Obama Administration will also have to consider new leadership for a number of other key agencies for the computing community: Director of NSF, Director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (DOE Sci), Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). While the Director of NSF is technically a political appointment, traditionally there has been reluctance in both the executive branch and the Senate (who would have to confirm the nominee) to treat it that way. Instead, the position has a six-year term, which is designed to overlap Presidential terms. It is therefore not mandatory that the Obama Administration seek a replacement for current NSF Director Arden Bement right away, but it is likely that members of the transition team are thinking about who might succeed Bement when the time comes. However, it is not unusual for the other science agency positions (and their deputies) to change with the Administration.

Finally, a new position President-Elect Obama has committed to creating in his Administration is that of Chief Technology Officer (CTO). The goal of this position, Obama has said, is to “ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century.” In addition, the CTO will “ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.” The question of whether that description suggests a CTO that is more engaged in policy development or one more engaged as a liaison across federal agencies has animated the technology policy community since the election. There are certainly a number of technology policy issues a CTO could conceivably tackle, including questions about the openness of the Internet, broadband policies, e-government initiatives, overseeing the health of the IT research ecosystem, modernizing health care IT, federal IT privacy policies, and many more. But it is also not clear how the new position would co-exist with the existing jurisdictions of both the OSTP technology policy apparatus and the CTO and CIO positions at federal agencies. If the role of the CTO is to become an “IT Czar,” in much the same way there have been “Drug Czars” and “Cybersecurity Czars,” then many in the community fear that the outcome will be just as unsuccessful as those previous efforts. We at CRA will continue to track the evolution of this position as well as the speculation surrounding (and nominations for) all the other positions as well.

For all the latest on the nominees, and all other policy issues relevant to computing research, make sure you check the Computing Research Policy Blog.

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