As Nature went to press, US president Barack Obama had still not nominated a director for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the $30.3-billion agency that is the world's largest funder of biomedical research. Regardless of when a director is named, the delay is already too long: Obama took office 136 days ago. In the interim, the NIH has been forced to navigate multiple sensitive issues under temporary leadership, including decisions about how to spend a massive $10 billion in economic stimulus money; the drafting of guidelines for expanded federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research (see above); and the launch of a proposal to tighten conflict-of-interest reporting requirements for its extramural investigators.

Moreover, the problem goes well beyond the NIH. The installation of senior agency leaders, most of whom have to be nominated by the president and confirmed by a majority vote of the US Senate, seems to go ever more slowly with each passing administration.

Granted, the Obama White House has been trying. As of Monday the Senate had confirmed 145 people for a total of 373 jobs that need filling, which is not too different from the pace set by the incoming Bush administration in 2001. But that still leaves only 4 of 21 Senate-confirmable posts filled at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Among those HHS posts still waiting for a permanent occupant — in addition to the NIH directorship — are the assistant secretary for health, the top public health adviser to the new HHS secretary, Kathleen Sebelius; the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation, her top policy adviser; and the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, her top adviser on bioterrorism and other public-health emergencies.

Even appointments that don't require Senate confirmation have been slow to materialize. Richard Besser, the acting director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was left to deal with the emergence of swine flu — Thomas Frieden, Obama's permanent appointee for the job, won't begin work until 8 June.

Other science agencies are in similar straits. At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Jane Lubchenco was confirmed as administrator in mid-March, but she still lacks a chief scientist and two assistant administrators, one for atmosphere and one for oceans. No nominees are in sight. At NASA, the two top posts went unfilled until 23 May, when Obama finally nominated former space-shuttle astronaut Charles Bolden as administrator and Lori Garver as his deputy. But no Senate hearings have yet been scheduled for them. And at the National Science Foundation, there is still no nomination for a deputy director — a key strategic post that encompasses the duties of chief operating officer.

This dilatory pace is partly a result of Obama's promise to run a squeaky-clean administration staffed by officials not beholden to lobbyists or other moneyed interests. But it is mostly the result of the Senate confirmation process, which in recent decades has become increasingly obsessed with savaging nominees over even the most minor slip-ups on taxes or nannies. To minimize the chances of embarrassment, the administration now requires Senate-confirmable nominees to fill out lengthy vetting questionnaires. These are so onerous that many feel compelled to spend their own money hiring accountants and lawyers to help fill them in. Other qualified people simply refuse to go through such an ordeal, and take themselves out of contention.

The administration and the Senate together must find a way to restore common sense to this process. Given the challenges faced by the United States, ranging from nuclear proliferation to climate change and potential pandemics, its government needs to recruit the best minds it can find — without subjecting them to a protracted, politically motivated vetting process that does nothing to solve real problems.