Practice and Pitfalls of Science Advising in the Government

John S. Morgan, US Department of Defense

Government leaders require high-quality, objective scientific advice on a daily basis. Science advisors have played critical roles in the development of almost every major policy initiative in the last generation. In many cases, scientists have led agencies in the federal government and executed technically-complex programs. Nonetheless, scientists are often underrepresented or ineffective in policy discussions. Scientific principles or ideas are often misrepresented or oversimplified to meet political objectives. Science professionals should understand the importance of their input into the policy and practice of government at all levels. Further, we must understand that successful engagement requires an understanding of politics and communication skills. Finally, the science advisor must combine a healthy skepticism of the limits of science with a passionate advocacy for the advancement of science across all disciplines.

In this article, I will discuss my personal experience with science advising across multiple levels and branches of government and offer some practical advice to anyone who seeks to do similar work. I bring an unusual perspective, because I served as an elected official in the Maryland House of Delegates for eight years at the same time as I worked at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. I had the honor of serving as the American Physical Society’s Congressional Science Fellow in the mid-1990’s. In the last dozen years or so, I have served in multiple positions in the Federal executive branch, including stints as the Deputy Director of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ, the science agency of the Department of Justice), Deputy Director for Science and Technology of the Combating Terrorism Technology Support Office, and most recently as Command Science Advisor of the US Army Special Operations Command. In each of these circumstances, I represented the scientific community in an organization that was focused on missions outside of the scope of scientific inquiry per se and where I was the outsider. In the legislature, my colleagues referred to me as the “rocket scientist,” and although I had worked on spacecraft, I certainly was not an expert in the physics and engineering of rockets. In the Justice Department, my office was the sole province of scientists in the largest law firm in the world. Although the Army sponsors and manages a wide-ranging scientific research program, it is the oldest bureaucracy in American government, predating the Declaration of Independence, and the institution remains very hierarchical and bureaucratic. This makes it difficult for any type of innovator to be effective, including scientists and soldiers who advocate for positive change. In every part of the government, inconvenient truths are everywhere. The scientist is often in the position of undermining established wisdom of every type across the ideological spectrum. In this sense, science and technology are inherently subversive, especially in the government, which is run by interests, relationships, and politics, not objective data. In the media, scientists are routinely stereotyped as socially inept dweebs; the science advisor must transcend those prejudices to be effective. At NIJ, I helped to develop and manage a major program relating to the use of DNA and forensics. From the inception of the program, it was necessary to transcend the dry language of the polymerase chain reaction. At one point, we met with senior officials to brief the new program. We used props — such as cool-looking micro-capillary electrophoresis chips — to convey the importance of scientific research to improvements in crime laboratory practice. We did not use the term, electrophoresis, but we did mention “lasers” and use Dr. Evil-style air quotes, an Austin Powers reference that was not lost on our audience. Later, when I was fortunate to meet the producers of the CSI television shows, they apologized to me for the unrealistic portrayal of the technologies and resources available to actual crime labs. I demurred, telling them that we welcomed the creative story-telling, which inspired the aspirations of the policing community and caught the imaginations of policy-makers. The NIJ program has been a great success for practice and science. It might never have come about if the talking points had been limited to the textbook chemistry.

If done right, the science advisor will often play the role of the scold. Some people will dislike what the scientist has to say, because it may threaten established ideas or the culture of an organization. Therefore, executive buy-in is essential. Those above the science advisor must tolerate such challenges, even if they are directed against the goals of the senior executive or political appointee. It does no good to be an advisor that always reinforces prevailing orthodoxy. While it can lead to stress, honest, objective advice is cherished by good leaders. In one of my positions, I encountered a company that sold detection equipment that was little more than an empty box. They had nonetheless convinced some key people to buy their product and use it in very sensitive situations. I invited them to demonstrate their technology at my office and we conducted a short field experiment. As expected, the device performed no better than random chance. I told the company representatives that I believed their device was fraudulent and told them that I would follow up on that basis. I did not know that one of the representatives was an old friend of my supervisor, who called me into his office soon afterward to tell me that my actions were unsatisfactory. I stood my ground, explained the science behind my thinking, and apologized for not previously alerting my supervisor. Fortunately, he was a decent man and solid leader. He backed me up after reviewing the information and even gave me top-notch performance reviews soon afterward. Just as importantly, he understood that he could trust me to tell him the truth based on sound science, whether he liked it or not.

Similarly, the scientist must understand that scientific truth is not absolute. First, there are many considerations in policy decisions, and science is only one of them. Also, science is inherently limited in the scope of its knowledge. For example, we understand the spectral absorbance of carbon dioxide and the implications for atmospheric warming, but the implications of specific climate change policies are much less certain. To be effective, especially in the long term, the scientist must abandon self-righteousness and ideology. The scientific community has done a poor job in this regard in recent years and has unnecessarily alienated policy-makers, especially among conservatives. Interdisciplinary collaboration is important in this regard. With respect to policy development, the hard sciences can benefit from a close relationship with social science, especially those who work in economics and evaluation research. Scientific evidence must encompass the human and social impact of policy and practice, not just the cold numbers of physical science. Again, such a synthesis must be pursued with an appreciation for the limits of current understanding, which must in turn be honestly conveyed to policy-makers and government officials. Scientific progress can often be slow, but it is relentless. Similarly, a rigorous, inter-disciplinary approach to science advising may be frustrating at times but will reap inevitable rewards in the long run.

Unfortunately, despite its importance in modern society, science is still poorly understood by the public and their representatives. Many think the new model of iPhone is “science.” Science doesn’t have a constituency, but technology does. Every government official wants to use technology to make their agency more effective, and every member of Congress wants the next high-tech startup in their backyard. In this environment, the science advisor must be an advocate for science for its own sake. Salutary examples abound. The smartphone wouldn’t exist if weren’t for solid state physics, band theory, and the development of the transistor. Washington debates policies relating to medicine and drugs that wouldn’t exist without modern chemistry and biology. Chemistry has succeeded because it sought fundamental understanding through experiment and classification, as exemplified in the periodic table or crystallography. Basic science will not thrive unless government leaders understand and support the importance of the continuing quest for better fundamental understanding across all the scientific disciplines. Scientists — whether in government or not — must advocate for basic science. This is the one area where it would be appropriate for the science advisor to be a traditional advocate; in this case, self-interest is in the public interest.

All scientific professionals play the role of science advisor, in some cases only to friends and family. It can seem to be an impossible challenge for those who wish to do more. There are many ways to be effective through writing letters or blogs or volunteering in local settings. I got my start in local politics while I was still in graduate school. My thesis advisor questioned my activity in voter registration as outside employment, but I was happy to inform him that it was volunteer work. The American Physical Society and other scientific associations offer fellowships and committees that provide opportunities for public policy engagement. The most common form of science advising is also one of the least recognized — that of the program manager or technical expert in science agencies or, as I have done, in organizations that need science and technology expertise. Many government agencies seek people like scientists, who possess graduate degrees and relevant expertise. Public service can be a very rewarding way to use one’s scientific background. At some point, if you choose that path, you will be forced to leave the laboratory behind. That was difficult for me, because I enjoyed the practice of science a great deal. Also, I have found it very difficult to stay on top of developments in my field as I once did. In government, the science advisor must have enormous breadth of knowledge, which prevents one from delving too far into the details of most issues. The best science advisors are natural generalists who are curious about other people’s work even when it doesn’t directly relate to their own research. I have discovered a new appreciation for the synthesis of ideas and, as outlined above, interdisciplinary research.

It is of the utmost importance for scientists to become involved in government and policy. Science advisors can make a positive contribution and a real difference in the problems faced by society. I encourage scientists of every political persuasion to engage in policy debates and the important work of public service.

John S. Morgan
US Department of Defense

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.