Post-Trump Brain Drain Largely Restored at Key Federal Agencies But More Work Needed on Diversity

November 14, 2023 | 11:38 am
federal scientist at CDCCDC/Unsplash
Jacob Carter
Former Contributor

One of the first analyses UCS undertook in 2021 was an effort to understand how many federal scientists had left without being replaced during the Trump administration. While not all agencies were equally impacted, the results indicated a steep decline in capacity at some key agencies.  As the graph below shows, the EPA lost nearly 700 scientists during the Trump administration’s four years in office. The Fish and Wildlife Service lost more than 200 scientists. These losses are especially important because the experts at these agencies work to make sure the air we breathe is clean, to combat the effects of climate change, and to protect endangered wildlife so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy our precious Earth for years to come.

Change in Scientific Capacity under Trump Administration

Restoring Capacity

In 2022, UCS surveyed thousands of federal scientists. We asked them many questions, including some that pertained to this issue of diminished capacity at many federal agencies. We asked them about their perception of staff departures, whether they perceived a lack of capacity and, if so, how that impacted their ability to fulfill their agency’s mission. A majority of the scientists surveyed scientists (982 respondents) reported noticing staff departures, retirements, or hiring freezes in the past two years. Of these respondents, 88 percent (868 respondents) agreed that a lack of capacity made it difficult for them to fulfill their agencies’ science-based missions.

The findings provided the impetus behind our most recent effort to investigate the health of the scientific workforce in the US federal government. First, the good news: as the graph below shows, our latest report, which looks closely at six federal agencies, finds that most have overcome—or are working to overcome—the Trump slump.

Percent Change of STEM Professionals since 2017 at Six Federal Agencies

While this is certainly good news, the federal government undoubtedly still needs more scientists. If we hope to make progress on issues like the climate crisis, we need qualified scientists in the government doing that work every day. What’s the correct number of scientists? It’s the number of scientists needed to effectively fulfill each federal agency’s mission – a number that we have yet to reach. Not only do we need more scientists, we need a pool of scientists that reflects our country’s diversity. What knowledge is the government missing out on because of weak partnerships with minority serving institutions?

Because so many fields are rapidly expanding, the government needs more scientists to help anticipate problems that can arise and formulate solutions. For example, in President Biden’s recent executive order on artificial intelligence, the administration signals that the federal government will likely be hiring more scientists with expertise on artificial intelligence. That’s great –our government certainly lacks expertise in this emerging field.

But there are also many other issues besides artificial intelligence where there is a shortage of federal scientists, including environmental justice and climate change, to name just two. While it’s understandable that the administration is limited by Congress’s control of the purse, it should be doing everything in its power to strengthen a solid scientific backbone in federal agencies. Imagine the progress we could make if our government had the scientific experts it needed.

More Work Needed on Diversity

In addition to supporting scientists applying to federal positions, our recent report provides a wide range of recommendations to federal agencies about how they can strengthen and diversify their scientific workforces. These recommendations were developed in an intensive, two-day discussion session with experts from academia, nonprofit organizations, and those who had previously worked in government. The resulting report offers recommendations on how federal agencies can better advertise the availability of federal positions, how to make pay and benefits more attractive to incoming scientists, and how federal agencies can better partner with minority-serving institutions.

The report argues that diversifying our federal workforce is not only the right thing to do, it is important for strengthening our government’s scientific capacity if we intend to solve today’s most critical problems. And we have some serious issues right now that require scientific experts, such as the climate crisis, the rise of artificial intelligence, and environmental injustices. So, what have we done, and more importantly what can you do?

The report also provides analyses that detail past and present diversity of the scientific workforce at key agencies. My colleague and lead author of the report, Anita Desikan, wrote a detailed blog discussing some of these findings, and Johanna Kreilick, president of UCS, tackles these important issues in a blog post, too. The ultimate takeaway is that federal agencies are still not doing enough to diversify, particularly when it comes to drawing experts from minority-serving institutions.

Apply to be a Government Scientist

So, what are the solutions to fixing the brain drain at federal agencies? To having the most talented and diverse federal workforce of scientists we can?

One is simply this: to encourage brilliant scientists, especially those early in their careers, to apply for federal scientists positions! Are you an early or mid-career scientist looking to take the next big leap? Have you thought about working for the federal government? If your graduate school experience was anything like mine then you probably haven’t. That’s largely because many universities do not promote government jobs as a lucrative career path.

Federal scientist positions do pay well, and offer excellent benefits. Equally important, they often offer work that can have a huge and beneficial impact on people’s lives. But it’s important to note that applying for a federal job is different than applying to jobs in the private or academic sectors. It can sometimes be perceived as tedious and complex. That’s why we developed a toolkit to help folks navigate the process!

This toolkit provides information on how to search for science-based positions in the executive branch, guidance on tailoring your resume and cover letter for federal agency jobs, and tips for interviewing with civil servants. The toolkit is specific to the executive branch, but it can also help you when applying for positions in the legislative branch. In addition, the appendix lists sources of information on best practices for applying for work across the government, including internships and fellowships for early- and mid-career scientists interested in gaining short-term experience.