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Dating back to World War II, presidents have employed scientists, engineers, and other professionals with technical backgrounds to provide counsel on policy issues with significant science and technology (S&T) components. Since 1976, White House S&T policymaking and advisory mechanisms have been managed by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) (Lane, Evans, and Matthews 2016). OSTP is charged by statute to provide S&T data and analysis to the president “on areas of national concern” (P.L. 94- 282). OSTP also coordinates federal S&T policy development and implementation, reports to Congress on S&T issues, and oversees the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), an independent advisory committee (Shea and Sargent Jr. 2017).
Created in 1990, PCAST is composed of scientists, engineers, and industry leaders with diverse areas of expertise and backgrounds who are appointed by the president (E.O. 12700). The council is co-led by the assistant to the president for science and technology (also known as the president’s “science advisor,” who in most recent administrations has also served as director of OSTP)—the council’s only federal member—and up to two members from the private sector. According to its most recent charter, PCAST advises the president on “policy that affects science, technology, and innovation, as well as S&T information that is needed to inform public policy relating to the economy, energy, environment, public health, national and homeland security, and other topics” (E.O. 13539). Each president since President Bill Clinton, including President Donald Trump, has renewed the charter for PCAST or issued a new executive order to modify its operations.
PCAST responds to requests from the president, vice president, and the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), a cabinet-level council chaired by the president that coordinates large-scale, interagency S&T programs. PCAST has only a few statutory responsibilities, allowing the president to tailor its membership and areas of study to best serve the administration’s policy agenda. PCAST’s proximity to the president, its high-profile membership, the science advisor’s role as its chair or co-chair (most external advisory committees do not include federal members as chairs), and the historical influence of its predecessor—the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC)—make it unique among federal advisory bodies.
In this report, we review the membership, activities, and impact of PCAST in the past four presidential administrations: Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Despite the differences between each administration’s priorities and how they utilized the council, PCAST has consistently been effective in generating policy and advising the president. If PCAST is to continue to have an impact in future administrations, the White House should: carefully consider the number of members appointed, give special attention to the diversity of the council’s makeup (in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, experience, and areas of expertise), and adequately fund the council’s activities. Furthermore, considerations should be made to focus the number of topics PCAST addresses and increase the impact and dissemination of its work.
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