National Science Foundation Authorization and Science and Technology Equal Opportunities Act Statement on Signing S. 568 Into Law.
I have today signed into law S. 568, which authorizes appropriations for the National Science Foundation for fiscal year 1981 and provides support for efforts to bring women and minorities into full participation in science and engineering.
It is gratifying to join Congress in devoting increased attention to the under-involvement of women and minorities in the scientific and technical professions. More than half the population of the United States is made up of women and members of minority groups, yet relatively few of them pursue careers in science, engineering, and technology. This bill will help to correct that inequity and prevent the waste of a vast pool of potential talent.
There are nevertheless deficiencies in this legislation that cause me to sign it with reservations.
The bill contains an unprecedented level of detailed funding specification and administrative direction. These provisions are an incursion on executive management responsibility, distort program balance, impede program management, and would be a serious problem for any agency. They are particularly serious in the case of the National Science Foundation.
This unique agency was established to extend the enormously effective scientific effort mounted by the United States during World War II. That effort was led by scientists themselves and by their perceptions of how scientific research and endeavor could best contribute to the war effort. To build on the success of that approach, the National Science Foundation was established with a unique structure and an independent, nonpolitical scientific leadership. To this day, moreover, it draws very heavily on advice from scientists and engineers outside the Government in selecting, by standards of scientific merit, the programs it should pursue and the projects it should support. The success of the Foundation and the spectacular achievements of American science attest to the wisdom of this approach to Federal support of science.
The National Science Foundation is not and should not be free from responsibility to the people and their representatives. But if the Foundation and the scientific enterprises it supports are to contribute effectively to meeting the needs of the people and the concerns of the country, then the Foundation must continue to be led and directed by scientists. The level of detailed political direction in this legislation represents a trend in the wrong direction.
I am also disturbed by the number and nature of instructions given in committee reports accompanying this legislation. Expressions such as "the Committee directs the Foundation to develop an experimental pilot program . . .", "the Committee directs the Foundation to provide continued strong support for scientific instrumentation and equipment", and "members of (an advisory group) shall serve for three year terms" abound in these reports.
To be sure, the occasional use of committee reports to send informal congressional messages to executive agencies is a time-honored and often desirable practice. It has a number of advantages for both branches precisely because committee reports are not law, need not clear all the legislative and constitutional hurdles a law must clear, and lack the force of law.
But when a committee directs in such a report that an agency of the executive act in a specific way, with the apparent expectation that the agency will take the direction as having something like the force of law, the practice takes a dangerous turn. Moreover, when such directions multiply as they have in the case of this legislation, they can easily become an instrument for detailed management of the agency by a few Members of Congress or by committee staffs. This should concern the Congress as much as it concerns the executive.
I am therefore reminding the Director of the National Science Foundation that committee reports are not law and should not be treated as though they were.
Note: As enacted, S. 568 is Public Law 96516, approved December 12.
Jimmy Carter, National Science Foundation Authorization and Science and Technology Equal Opportunities Act Statement on Signing S. 568 Into Law. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/250565