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Should Our Top Officials Be Experts?

We may need to appoint experts to run major federal agencies.

He’s gone. Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s appointee to run the Environmental Protection Agency—a crucial legacy of the 1970 Republican administration’s commitment to clean and a safe country—has resigned.

The reasons for Mr. Pruitt’s departure are manifold. But basically, he blamed enemies while his opponents blamed his irregular conduct, both in ethical and scientific terms. There were over a dozen investigations of his alleged ethics violations.

It is unclear what this means for the future of the EPA. Pruitt’s acting replacement, Andrew Wheeler, is a former lobbyist for the coal industry and a consultant on climate-change denial. The president has described the agency as ‘a disgrace’ and called for its abolition.

It seems unlikely that will happen, since doing so would not be within his gift. But the issue of who should run the organisation remains. Public confidence in our key scientific agencies is essential to their success. And as this administration in general undergoes repeated churn, with more people leaving the cabinet than at any time in the last century, we need expertise and stability.

Looking back at former confirmed leaders of the agency, we find numerous lawyers, a business owner, full-time politicians, a corporate scientist, and two engineers. The vast majority have been registered Republicans.

No EPA leader has actually been a climate scientist. Few have any scholarly qualifications related to environmental knowledge, experience of working in the field, or time spent with major environmental organisations, though some went on to do so after their time in office.

Similar issues of knowledge and capacity obtain across the federal bureaucracy. The vast array of partisan positions available across administrations as gifts from the two major parties militates against impartial advice and a stress on reason and expertise in favor of ideology. The subordination of institutional knowledge held by career officials to transitory individuals who are party loyalists undermines the confidence and career prospects of dedicated public servants. And it presents a free ride to special interests armed with banking transfers.

That said, the other side to this question is that elected politicians can appoint advisors to whom they feel ideologically and professionally close and who can offer partisan recommendations based on the objective advice of civil-service expertise. In addition, the regular shake-up of senior officials guaranteed by electoral cycles can work against ossification and guarding established interests. And it may be valuable having people running organisations of the federal government who are practiced at putting policies in place, knowledgeable about what makes competent legislation, and capable of ensuring credible compliance with it, rather than being focused entirely on specialist subject matter. These abilities are not guaranteed as part of scholarly and professional environmental qualifications and backgrounds.

In terms of organisational psychology and political science, we therefore appreciate that there are arguments on both sides. And it may well be that strong institutions weather such churn well and can frequently domesticate wild appointees who are poorly prepared for their responsibilities.

The process for approving people to run major Federal agencies such as the EPA is bipartisan. Politicians sometimes cross the floor to oppose candidates, or because they are satisfied that nominees are at least professionally-competent people and need to be trusted by the President of the day.

The EPA was founded with the following mission, enunciated in the 1970 State of the Union address: ‘shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water? Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.’

Heartfelt words—and possibly sound advice. We appoint renowned lawyers as Supreme Court judges, military officers as Joint Chiefs of Staff, and eminent doctors as surgeons-general. Many of those selected are registered party loyalists, but all are professionally qualified. It may be time to make running the EPA the reserve of professional expertise in order to ensure real public confidence in both the agency and the environmental issues it addresses. Do you want your therapist to be fully accredited, your dental surgeon a distinguished graduate, and your driver properly licensed?

More from Toby Miller, Ph.D., and Richard Maxwell Ph.D.
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