Executive Director's Column

Making Science a Priority

Perhaps most important of all, the letter calls upon the next President to elevate the position of Science Advisor to cabinet rank.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

In previous columns this year, I’ve made a big deal about the opportunities created by a presidential election. The campaigns bring into focus issues and concerns on the minds of citizens. They bring out the good – and the bad – in discourse, rhetoric, proposals, and plans. They create a media frenzy, elevating the attention we normally pay to social and economic issues.

More than other recent presidential elections, the campaigns this year have been focusing a lot on science. The candidates seem to recognize the importance and value of science in addressing the social and technological challenges of the 21st century. There is a growing realization and appreciation for the contributions to be made by science, especially in such areas as math and science education, energy, and global climate change.

Within the executive branch, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is charged with providing the President with advice and guidance on science and technology. OSTP serves as the President’s main advisor when it comes to assessing the role and impact of science in domestic and foreign policy, programs, and initiatives.

The Director of OSTP also serves as the President’s science advisor. Although today’s Office of Science and Technology Policy was only established in 1973, the position of science advisor can be traced back to the Truman administration. Many outstanding scientists have occupied this position. Most recently, Neal Lane (former Director of NSF) served as President Clinton’s science advisor, and currently John Marburger, III serves as President Bush’s science advisor.

When a new administration sets up shop, a flurry of new appointments occurs. Cabinet-level positions and heads of federal agencies are named. We can often gauge the importance and priority a President assigns to functions of the federal government by considering the care and speed with which such appointments are made.

Along these lines, APA has joined with more than 100 other professional organizations and universities in urging the candidates to appoint a science advisor by January 20. This effort is being led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Association of American Universities (AAU).

The endorsing societies and institutions have signed on to a letter to both presidential candidates. The letter reinforces the candidates’ acknowledgements of the importance of science and the role science will play in their administration.

Perhaps most important of all, the letter calls upon the next President to elevate the position of Science Advisor to cabinet rank. The Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Trade Representative are all cabinet rank appointments. The Director of OSTP is not.

If the next President is really serious about making science a priority, he will do two things. He will make sure that a science advisor is appointed early, and he will give that advisor appropriate stature and authority within the White House so the new President can make most effective use of science in addressing the many challenges we face.

APA is doing all that we can to make sure that science is a high priority for the next administration, and that psychological science is included. Indeed, all of us bear responsibility for getting psychology to the table. Always be on the look-out for ways to make your discipline known to the next generation of leaders. Connecting the science of psychology to the challenges of society has never been more important.