Science, Delayed

Blindness Is Bipartisan When it Comes to the OTA

Chris Mooney at Science Progress says restoring the Office of Technology Assessment for Congress is more difficult than expected.

This article was originally published in Science Progress.

Count me among the naive. Like many other science policy watchers, I more or less just assumed that once progressives regained control of Congress in 2006 for the first time in 12 years, they would undo one of the chief offenses against science committed by conservative lawmakers: The de-funding and dismantling of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

But when I sought recently to check up on the status of the ongoing quest to bring OTA back, I found I had been seriously wrong in my initial assumptions. While the OTA may have died on the altar of partisan ideology in 1995, its revival today seems to be inhibited by a bipartisan failure to understand why it’s needed.

Originally created in 1972, OTA became world-renowned for its provision of user-friendly scientific advice to members of Congress, and served as a model for the design of science advisory mechanisms in many European parliaments. The OTA’s board of congressional overseers was bipartisan, yet the office nevertheless made conservative enemies with some of its reports. In particular, it was said to have literally shot down Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” dream during the 1980s with a series of reports underscoring the program’s technical infeasibility and strategic silliness.

Meanwhile, because OTA worked most directly for its board of senior legislators, rather than for every elected representative, few incoming freshmen members of Congress in 1994 had any way of understanding its value. And so, with the Gingrich-led conservatives vowing to cut legislative expenses as one plank of the “Contract With America,” it died in a partisan vote in 1995.

But a shift of political wind seemed to suggest grounds for hope in 2006: With the end of conservative control of Congress, surely progressives would recognize the value of the office and restore its funding. After all, it’s not like OTA costs very much in the grand scheme of things—the bill was $ 21.9 million per year as of 1995. And the need for OTA has only become more apparent, not less, over time, as policymakers see more and more that many political issues have inescapable technical components.

Finally, after years of thought on the subject, science policy watchers generally seem to agree that while Congress has many existing research branches—the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, as well as the option to commission reports from the National Academy of Sciences—OTA nevertheless filled a critical niche with its intensive, policy-relevant examination of science issues specifically in the service of Congress. So surely, it had to come back eventually. Right?

We were all mistaken. Over the summer, you see, a bipartisan group of legislators launched an effort to restart funding for OTA through the appropriate channel: the legislative branch’s appropriations bill. But although $2.5 million was ultimately allocated to the Government Accountability Office for technology assessment work, OTA did not emerge reborn from the appropriations process this year. The move left many OTA advocates miffed—and caused them to rethink some of their assumptions.

It now seems clear that this isn’t simply an ideological issue; some high-level progressives, as well as conservatives, apparently fail to appreciate OTA’s value. Indeed, explains Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), a physicist and longtime champion of restoring OTA, some representatives seem to think that refunding OTA is simply tantamount to giving a gift to scientists. “Someone actually said to me this year, when OTA was in and then taken out of the appropriations, they said, ‘Well, we’ve already done some things for scientists this year.’ And I said, ‘Oh, boy, now I understand, and now I understand the need for OTA,’” says Rep. Holt.

As a physicist himself, Holt is probably the last member of Congress who really needs a tool like the Office of Technology Assessment. He already knows how to think about the scientific underpinnings of policy issues such as transportation regulation and election reform. But then, he’s the exception. And that’s precisely the point.

Many members of Congress don’t even see the scientific component to many policy issues. “I use voting as an example,” Holt explains. “Not a single one of my colleagues really understood the problem that was presented by unverifiable voting machines. Scientists or engineers would get that immediately. But Congress didn’t.”

Indeed, too often members of Congress think that science gets dealt with in the House Science and Technology Committee, which has jurisdiction over NASA, NSF, and other science agencies. Or else, they figure they’ll hear enough about science just by osmosis when it comes to high profile topics like global warming and embryonic stem cell research.

But in truth, science pops up again and again across a wide diversity of political issues, including many unexpected ones, which is why the entire Congress needs the service of an agency specially suited to analyze issues with that in mind, as well as to look forward to future science-related quandaries on the horizon.

And so the defenders of OTA must return to the drawing board—and make the case that congressional science advice is good for everyone and good for democracy, not just something that science, as a special interest group, wants to see happen.

In the end, perhaps that’s a good thing. The fundamental problem of science today, it could be argued, lies in its failure to connect to the rest of society, to politics, to the arts, to the humanities. If scientists and policymakers can make the case for OTA in universal terms that resonate even for members of Congress with little appreciation of science policy issues, then the office can return on a firmer footing than ever before.

Chris Mooney is the Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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