Last month, the majority staff of the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology released the report Scientific Brain Drain: Quantifying the Decline of the Federal Scientific Workforce, an analysis of federal employment levels of seven federal science agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology (DHS S&T), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of Energy (DOE), and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). The analysis looked across the past decade to understand how the federal government is investing in its increasing scientific responsibilities, alongside the context of racial, ethnic, and gender equity. The report identifies historical challenges facing U.S. researchers compared to other countries such as underinvestment in research, understaffing of STEM workers, lack of diversity in the scientific workforce, and lack of scientific integrity at federal agencies. The report calls on Congress and the executive branch to focus long-term attention and support to restore scientific integrity; increase funding for science agencies; embrace proactive recruitment, hiring, and retention policies; and deepen the commitment to diversity and equity. The full report is available on the Science Committee website.
This article was contributed by COSSA’s Spring intern, Nicholas Lynn.
On March 17, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing to address strategies to rebuild the federal scientific workforce especially related to recruiting and retaining scientific talent. The Subcommittee heard testimony from Acting Director for Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics at the U.S. Government Accountability Office Candice Wright; President and CEO at the Partnership for Public Service Max Stier; Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists Dr. Andrew Rosenberg; and Former Director of Science and Technology at the Office of Water at the Environmental Protection Agency Dr. Betsy Southerland.
Subcommittee Chairman Bill Foster (D-IL) and Ranking Member Jay Obernolte (R-CA) both acknowledged the need to improve the capabilities of the federal government to hire scientists, and Subcommittee members of both parties seemed broadly supportive of suggestions provided by the panelists to increase the federal scientific workforce and reform federal hiring practices. Some of the recommendations discussed by Subcommittee members and panelists included reducing the budgetary and political restraints on hiring scientists, improving the federal government’s “brand” as an employer, simplifying the federal job-hunting process for scientists, offering meaningful scientific internships as a legitimate pipeline to full-time employment, investing in STEM education opportunities in elementary schools, and deemphasizing the reliance on temporary workers and contractors at federal agencies. Both Foster and Obernolte expressed interest in pursuing legislative action on these topics in the future.
Statements from Foster and full Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), witness testimonies, and a full recording of the hearing are available on the SST website.
On January 22, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Protecting the Federal Workforce, which repealed several Trump-era executive actions affecting the civil service. Notably, the executive order revokes the controversial Schedule F excepted service category (see previous COSSA coverage), which would have reclassified some federal employees to be more prone to hiring and firing as if they were political appointees. The executive order is available on the White House website.
On October 21, President Trump issued an Executive Order on Creating Schedule F in the Excepted Service, a move that elicited wide criticisms from federal employee organizations. The executive order would create a new classification of federal employee, Schedule F, and defines this class of employee as those in “positions of a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character that are not normally subject to change as a result of a Presidential transition.” Furthermore, heads of executive agencies would be given the power to determine which Federal positions are covered by Schedule F upon approval by the White House Office of Personnel Management (OPM). These changes would effectively allow a Presidential Administration to more easily hire and fire Schedule F employees as if they were political appointees and prohibits Schedule F employees from participating in practices prohibited for the exempted service such as collective bargaining.
Federal employee associations have denounced the executive order as a danger to the independent nature of federal service. The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) released a statement that the executive order “threatens the centuries-long integrity of nonpartisan professionals by forming a broad exception to the competitive civil service. The new exception demolishes the rule that civil servants are hired and fired based on merit, not political affiliation.”
The executive order gives heads of executive agencies ninety days to compile a list of positions subject to reclassification under Schedule F (a deadline that ends on January 19, the day before Inauguration Day). Members of Congress are reportedly looking into legislative options for reversing the order. In addition, as the rule could potentially be reversed by a change in Presidential administration, COSSA will continue to monitor the implementation of this executive order through the rest of the current presidential term.
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