Hiring and Pay Authorities for Federal Scientific and Technical (S&T) Personnel

Publication Date: May 2009

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Government; Science and technology

Type: Report

Coverage: United States


In recent decades, the federal government has made many efforts to recruit and retain scientists, engineers, and technical workers, who otherwise may find a more attractive environment in the private and nonfederal sectors. As a group, these science and technology (S&T) personnel may be called the federal S&T workforce. A large subset of the S&T workforce is composed of scientific and engineering (S&E) personnel. By one count, the federal government employs over 200,000 scientists and engineers. Several factors have contributed to concerns about the federal S&T workforce. These include demand for S&T workers, concerns as to whether federal salaries are competitive with the private sector, the need for U.S. citizenship for federal employment, and the aging of the federal S&T workforce as those hired during previous federal S&T hiring booms retire. Many federal S&T personnel are hired or paid under agency-specific statutory authorities, rather than government-wide civil service laws in Title 5 of the United States Code. Others may be hired or paid under a variety of executive-branch-wide statutory authorities which allow for, among other things, demonstration projects, direct hiring, and special pay rates. Congress frequently has been willing to grant flexibility for expedited hiring or higher-than-usual rates of pay, in order to better equip agencies to accomplish congressionally determined public policy objectives. However, Congress frequently also has been wary of providing too much flexibility, or unaccountable flexibility, because of the potential for flexibility to be abused. Therefore, federal personnel-related laws continually raise the issue of how to balance flexibility, on one hand, with preventing abuse of the flexibility, on the other. Human resource management issues relating to S&T personnel have been of ongoing concern to Congress, both government-wide and for particular agencies. Because hiring and pay practices are changing constantly, not only by law, but also by agency regulation and administrative action, it is not possible to provide a comprehensive overview or assessment of all policies here. Nevertheless, if Congress wishes to evaluate the ability of the federal government and its agencies to recruit and retain S&T personnel, the variety of statutory authorities provide illustrations of topics that might be examined. In addition, the federal governments experience with these statutory authorities might inform Congresss deliberations. For example, Congress may wish to consider modifying the ability of the federal government to recruit highly-qualified scientific, engineering, and technical personnel. In evaluating current efforts or considering future modifications, Congress may wish to consider options that include agency-specific or executive-branch-wide approaches; leveraging the involvement of the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the federal Chief Human Capital Officers Council, or other entities; requiring agencies to engage in strategic planning, evaluation, or other activities; and exploring a variety of S&T personnel issues in specific agency and policy contexts. This report will be updated when events warrant.