What I Told Congress: Five Ways to Rebuild Scientific Capacity in Federal Agencies

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | March 24, 2021, 4:47 pm EDT
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Last Wednesday, I testified before the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. And it was a productive hearing, not least because there was clear bipartisan agreement on the critical role that a strong scientific workforce for the federal government plays in serving the needs of the American public.  That is a welcome change from the last four years of attacks on science, loss of scientific integrity,  plunging morale, and the undermining of the federal scientific workforce. But there are steps that need to be taken to restore science-based decisionmaking. And as the hearing highlighted, a reinvigorated, diverse federal workforce is key to that goal.

Bipartisan agreement bodes well for action on some of the steps I and other witnesses raised:

  1. Pass the Scientific Integrity Act
  2. Increase fellowship opportunities
  3. Strengthen recruitment, particularly from a more diverse group of those early in their STEM careers
  4. More effectively use the tools that government has available (direct hire authority, student loan forgiveness, increased compensation)
  5. Reform procedures and practices for hiring, mentoring, recruitment, and flexibility in positions
  6. Train science program leaders on effective management of a more diverse workforce

Now it is up to the administration, Congress and the science community to make things happen. The administration needs to put in place the procedures and practices to address this critical need.  Congress needs to pass legislation and appropriate funds to rebuild science agencies after four devastating years on top of decades of decline. And the science community and the public need to hold our government to account and call for making things happen.

Here at UCS we will be calling for your support as we keep the pressure on for action.  All of the things that we stand for as an organization depend on a strong federal science enterprise. We cannot simply rebuild the federal agencies of the past, we must strengthen, modernize, and diversify our scientific agencies so they are well positioned to tackle our current and future challenges.  I hope you are with us.

What I told Congress:

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee. My name is Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, and I am the Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

My experience spans more than 30 years in government service, academia, private sector consulting, and nonprofit leadership.

Why Federal Science Matters

Federal scientists are on the frontlines of our nation’s capability to respond to society’s needs, from forecasting natural disasters to natural resource management and responding to pandemics.

Federally funded basic research that enables scientific discovery and innovation is critical to economic growth, employment, and sustainable development.

All science-based agencies, from the Defense Department to NASA to the Department of Agriculture and Commerce depend on a strong, continuously renewed scientific workforce.

Scientific Capacity Declines in Federal Agencies

The last four years have seen a significant reduction in the scientific workforce at many federal agencies. Our report, The Federal Brain Drain, found that five of the seven agencies we analyzed collectively lost more than 1,000 scientific staff.

Few agencies fared worse than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Between 2016 and 2020, the EPA lost nearly 6% of its scientific workforce—more than 670 staff including in regional offices, especially in the West, Southwest, and Midwest.

For some agencies, growth stagnated. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lost 187 scientific staff, a loss of 2.2% in the three years before the pandemic began.

We recognize that demography was part of the driving force of this loss. But the inflow of new talent was squeezed as well. Fellowships curtailed, recruitment stagnant.

Federal Scientists Survey Results

Morale matters too, for retention, recruitment and productivity. We tracked more than 190 instances of attacks on science during the Trump administration, far outnumbering previous administrations.

When we surveyed more than 4,000 federal scientists in 2018,  80% of respondents said they noticed workforce reductions and nearly 90% reported that these losses made it difficult to fulfill their missions.

And at the EPA, fewer than 15% of surveyed scientists reported their morale as excellent or good.

Scientific Integrity and Revitalizing the Federal Scientific Workforce

In January, the Biden administration issued a key memorandum on restoring trust at government agencies through scientific integrity and evidence-based policy making. An important step for restoring morale, but more is needed.  Representative Tonko has re-introduced the Scientific Integrity Act, which would codify in statute the prevention of political interference or manipulation of scientific evidence.

Policy Solutions

The administration and Congress need to rebuild and strengthen federal scientific capacity, diversify the scientific workforce, and revitalize the pipeline that brings early-career scientists into civil service.

Specifically:

  1. Increasing fellowship programs such as the Presidential Management, STAR (science to achieve results), Sea Grant, and Oak Ridge programs, which bring new talent to agencies. New fellowships should be created that tackle other science-related issues, such as climate change or equity and environmental justice. To diversify the workforce, agencies must also ensure that recruitment is broader and compensation, resources, and benefits for fellows are sufficient for those with economic challenges, not just the privileged few.
  2. Recruitment must reach new audiences and counteract the tendency for hiring managers to recruit from a known set of institutions again and again. Every effort should be made to recruit by hosting far more events at Historically Black, Hispanic, and Tribal Institutions. The administration must learn from the private and nonprofit sector about recruiting tools.  Job fairs and other techniques must target a wider array of institutions than in the past and account for historical disparities in recruitment and hiring. Agencies must learn to work effectively with institutions unaccustomed to steering students towards civil service.
  3. Reaching scientific capacity quickly will require not only recruiting and hiring to fill vacancies, but also reengaging with those who have retired from federal service, to regain lost knowledge, experience, and expertise.
  4. Federal agencies must train mid and senior level scientists in leadership of diverse staffs. Effective science leaders and mentors are not necessarily those who publish the most papers or have been in service the longest. These are learned skills critical for the effectiveness of any enterprise.
  5. Young scientists today are used to changing jobs and career paths frequently, so the civil service must evolve accordingly. More extensively utilizing programs for rotating assignments, remote work, joint appointments and joint institutes increases career flexibility.

I appreciate the opportunity to share my views and I am happy to answer any questions.”

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