The Braille Monitor _______ December 1997
Through the Legal Profession
by Charles Brown
From the Editor: Charlie Brown is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind and President of the NFB of Virginia. He is also Assistant General Counsel at the National Science Foundation. This is what he said:
It is indeed a pleasure to be here, and since I reside and have for the last twenty-five years or so in our nation's capital area, I bring you greetings from America's largest and most interesting theme park. I'm really honored today to talk with you as a fellow Federationist about what I do to earn my daily bread.
I work for the National Science Foundation, and it truly is an exciting place to work. Although in many ways we operate like a private foundation, we're actually established as a federal agency. We're located in Arlington, Virginia. The Foundation's primary mission is to support (that means send money out to) science and engineering research and education efforts carried out mostly by the colleges and universities around the country. We also run the U.S. Antarctic Program, including our three bases in Antarctica. Many of you may know us best from the science underwriting we do for National Public Radio and Public Television.
Let me make it very clear to you that I am not a scientist myself, so it's a real challenge to interact every day with a truly outstanding staff. That's half the fun of being there. Our average professional staffer is a Ph.D. scientist or engineer with numerous years of research and teaching experience acquired before coming to the NSF. We have hardly any professional entry-level positions.
Here's where I fit in. In recent years Congress has tried to focus accountability by identifying particular individuals in the government who are responsible for performing particular critical tasks (at least what Congress believes to be critical tasks) so that one person will be answerable as to whether it's done right or not done right. For instance, every agency has an inspector general to ferret out fraud, waste, and abuse. Each agency is required to have a chief financial officer. And each federal agency, including NSF, is required to have someone called in the statute "a designated agency ethics official," responsible only to the agency head, whose job is to direct that agency's employee ethics and conflict-of-interest-prevention efforts. That's my job at NSF.
NSF spends about three billion of your tax dollars every year--that's billion with a "b." Almost all of it is spent on peer-reviewed research and education grants and cooperative agreements. But even with as much as three billion to spend every year, the problem is that lots more folks want money from NSF than can get it, so the competition is fierce. It's not really a question so much of weeding out unworthy science from worthy research; the real issue is picking out the best science we can buy from the merely good. To the extent that we can do this well, we earn the confidence of the scientific community--the community we serve on a daily basis, as well as the general public and the Congress. I think we can say that we have done this over the years because at the bottom line Congress has supported NSF very well where it counts, in the appropriations process.
My mission is to protect NSF to see that its procedures guarantee integrity and fairness in the review process, that people don't participate in the decision-making process when they have improper, even inappropriate, relationships, affiliations, or financial interests that could be affected by what we're trying to do with that particular program. Yes, at NSF we have to adhere to a whole bunch of federal ethics regulations, but we have to do so in an environment which is different from that in the typical federal agency or office.
For instance, we are managed by a twenty-four-member, part-time, Presidentially-appointed National Science Board that is deliberately set up to come from and represent the science community we fund. We have to watch out and make sure that we avoid conflicts of interest with their particular home institutions. Unlike full-time agencies' board members like the Federal Communications Commission, or something like that, these people are specifically not asked to give up their outside interests or affiliations to assume their part-time duty. We want them to be true representatives of the outside. They are mostly college presidents, deans, and corporate R&D people. Another thing that is different about us is that at any given time our professional staff is composed of 30 percent people visiting NSF as rotators for only a year or two. We have to make sure that these people don't put their thumbs on the scales to help their universities back home get some unfair advantage.
Another distinguishing feature is that we use 6,000 panel peer-reviewers a year to evaluate grant research proposals. Those folks, too, have to be conflict-screened to make sure that they're going to judge on the basis of scientific merit and not on the basis of their old buddies or where they have a buck or two invested.
Now, with all that said, in 1991 the National Science Foundation decided that it needed to conduct a nationwide search for a new ethics official. I ended up getting that job. It was truly an unusual application and interview process that even involved my teaching a sample seminar and interviewing all manner of people. My friends joked that, if I interviewed one more person to get this job, it would be the Vice President. Anyway, I got it, and there were a bunch of other people who wanted it, so I was happy to get it--a little bit surprised because I had some ethics role in the Department of Labor, where I had been for twenty years, but most of my job with Labor actually involved the Department's legislative activities on the Hill. As it turned out, I guess they thought I had a pretty decent background. In addition to my twenty years with Labor, I do hold my undergraduate degree from Harvard, and my law degree is from Northwestern.
So what I do in the ethics business--I'm a counselor--I advise people how to get through the complicated ethics laws. I'm often a judge saying, "You may do this, and you may not do that." I issue hundreds of written opinions a year. I'm part of the management team. Some of these big projects that we fund (we had a 350-million-dollar one that I was involved in and got a big cash award for how I handled it this year) have so many universities involved that I'm basically working on the project right alongside the scientists every day.
I deal with the White House on our Presidential appointees and nominees and often am the first to know who is going to be on the National Science Board or who is going to be Director or Deputy Director. I'm also our liaison person with the U.S. Office of Government and Ethics. I have a great deal of sympathy for those in the private sector because I too am in a regulated industry, and they come and audit us and make sure that we're in compliance with all the governmental and ethics enactments.
I don't do this work alone. I have four other folks in the general counsel's office who spend at least some of their time assisting me. I spend a lot of time keeping our various division directors and deputy division directors up-to-speed and up to the latest on both our own procedures and NSF procedures. Many of those procedures and regulations I wrote myself. I published two sets of NSF-specific ethics regulations in the Federal Register last year.
People ask me what alternative techniques I use--not many really, I guess. I do have a CCTV in the office, and I use screen enlargement software on my computer, and I use Braille a lot. That's important. I obviously have residual vision, but one of my critical jobs is that I must train about 700 of our staff in two-hour training sessions every year. I do it in small seminar groups of about thirty-five apiece, scheduled about twice a month. I just couldn't do two-hour training sessions with case studies without my training outlines and all my other training materials available in Braille.
People also ask me, "Was blindness an issue in getting this job?" The answer is, "Yes, it was." The people who interviewed me probably violated all kinds of EEOC rules (and I'm glad they did) by asking me, "How are you going to handle computers around NSF?" I knew the answers because I had checked it out. I had been down to the exhibit hall. I knew about that kind of stuff and how much it cost. What I didn't tell them was that I had no idea how to use a computer in the first place. I figured, what the heck; if I got the job, these are just machines anyway, and I know how to use machines. I learned some about computers, as much as I needed to learn.
The only other issue about blindness was that early on there was some chatter about how could they give this much unreviewable responsibility to a blind person? That came back to me through third parties. Thankfully, and I hope through my good efforts, we no longer hear that kind of stuff around NSF. I'm proud of the job I do; I'm proud that it helps keep our science the best in the world. I'm especially blessed to have the opportunity to come here to talk to you for a few minutes about what I do because I do think it's important.