Some of the most technologically complex issues that have ever faced lawmakers are now before a body — the Congress of the United States — where less than 5 percent of the members have any scientific or technical training.
Unfortunately, the consequences of Yankee ingenuity are not always beneficial. Astounding advances in chemistry, manufacturing, physics and information technology have improved our quality of life. Yet, these improvements have produced harmful releases to the environment, unprecedented consumption of natural resources, and threats to our health and well-being.
Back in the 1970s, these consequences were considered a threat to the security and general welfare of the United States, and Congress took steps to enhance its understanding of the impacts of technological breakthroughs on society.
What Congress needed was independent, unbiased and scientific evaluations of emerging technologies and their anticipated consequences. Many of these issues were complex and multidimensional, demanding integrated, comprehensive analysis on a level that was not readily available in the traditions of the policy-making process. Congress also found that they were at a disadvantage compared to the Executive Branch, which had the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and a presidential science advisor to provide guidance and analysis. The Legislative Branch wanted an independent body that would meet the demanding schedule of committee requirements, help to support legislation under consideration, and provide analysis on the impacts of policy and funding decisions. To fulfill this need, Congress passed legislation establishing the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1972.
OTA eventually became recognized worldwide. Representatives from about one-third of the world’s nations visited the agency to learn how it worked and have used it as a model to provide technology advice to their own governments. Austria, Denmark, the European Community, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden have copied or adapted the OTA model.
OTA began its operation in January 1973. It closed its doors on Sept. 29, 1995. There are many theories as to why OTA lost its funding.
Some critics saw OTA as a tool of the Democrats and felt that OTA reports and opinions were controlled by liberals in Congress. But OTA was governed by a bipartisan Technology Assessment Board (TAB) composed of six House and six Senate members, with both parties equally represented. OTA operated under the management and supervision of a director who played a key role in providing the vision behind OTA’s work and seeing that its studies walked that fine line between providing advice and recommendations to Congress without being perceived as usurping some of their policy authority.
At its peak, OTA had a permanent staff of 200, of which two-thirds were professional research personnel. About 40 percent of the research staff were temporary appointments who were brought in from the technical community for a particular project. OTA used advisory panels of stakeholders to ensure that the assessments received input from the public and were fair and balanced.
All OTA reports underwent an extensive review by staff and outside experts. After approval by the Director, the reports were reviewed by the TAB before they were released to the requesting committee(s). Maintaining a commitment to unbiased, objective evaluation and analysis was essential in promoting credibility and in preventing the Agency from becoming the unwitting tool of those with a political agenda. OTA took pride in having its reports cited both by an issue’s defenders and detractors. Over 750 reports were produced in the 23 years that OTA existed. Many of these reports still are being cited today.
Other critics thought the agency was a superfluous and expensive token whose role could easily be filled by other entities, such as the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Certainly other sources of scientific evaluation existed in the1970s and continue today. Although the quality of their work is indisputable, none of these entities truly fills the need for rapid response and multidisciplinary analysis and advice. The National Academies enjoy an outstanding reputation and are well-equipped to perform large, complex studies. However, many of the requests from Congress are for shorter, less expensive studies than the National Academies were set up to perform. The CRS — an arm of the Library of Congress — provides an indispensable service to individual members and staff, and is able to produce impressive legislative histories and summaries of issues. Nevertheless, CRS is not well positioned to draw upon outside experts and assemble multi-faceted teams to provide the depth of analysis that is sometimes required. The General Accounting Office (GAO) — also a congressional agency — has traditionally been the investigative arm of the government. Their expertise in performing issue audits and finding deficiencies and critical flaws in government programs is well-respected. However, they are not structured to perform analysis of emerging issues or for evaluating the impact of technology on society. The OTA provided services not being performed by any other government or non-government entity.
There were rumors that one of the major OTA reports on President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative had been controversial and not well-received by supporters who came to control Congress in 1995. Some people thought that OTA’s response time was too slow and that legislation had long since been resolved before the related report was issued.
In the budget-cutting zeal of the 104th Congress, OTA stood out as one of the orphan agencies that were easy targets for those wanting to reduce the size of government.
Whatever the cause or combination of causes that resulted in OTA’s untimely elimination, and the resulting void remains unfilled. As the last TAB Chairman, Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), wrote in a tribute to OTA in its final Annual Report to Congress: “The agency took on controversial subjects, examining them objectively and comprehensively for our benefit. It helped us to better understand complex technical issues by tailoring reports for legislative users. It provided us with early warnings on technology’s impacts and it enabled us to better oversee the science and technology programs within the Federal establishment.”
The work of OTA encompassed a wide diversity of topics, including a comprehensive policy analysis of the nation’s energy future; sustainable agricultural development and ecosystem management; the use of Federal lands and resources in relation to public equity, industry responsibility, and long-term protection of the environment. Many of the issues they studied are still being debated in Congress today, more than six years later. Other issues, such as stem cell research and cloning, racial profiling, global warming, national missile defense, educational testing and a national energy policy could all be the topics of OTA studies in the current Congress.
There have been past attempts to restart OTA, none successful. This year in the House of Representatives, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) has introduced two paragraphs of legislation that would start the flow of funds to the agency again. Original co-sponsors of this legislation include Rep. Houghton and the Chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.). To date, 49 co-sponsors from both parties have signed on to this legislation, a confirmation of the obvious need for better science and technology advice in Congress.
Initiated by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the Senate has funded a pilot project in the Legislative Branch appropriations bill that would provide $1 million of seed money to study the need for an OTA-type entity next year. There has been wide-spread support in the scientific community for OTA. Fostering a better understanding of technological and scientific issues in Congress affects all our lives through more enlightened, thoughtful public policy.