Congress Should Revive the Office of Technology Assessment

The Worm Moon rises behind the Statue of Freedom on top of the dome of the U.S. Capitol, March 2019.

In recent decades, the U.S. economy and society have been propelled forward by a boom in science and technology innovation—but the legislative branch has failed to keep pace with the resultant shifts in policy concerns. American life is rife with newly entrenched science and technologies that have been met with concern and confusion—from the genetic modification of food to personal data privacy on social media. Additionally, the emergence of highly technical concerns such as climate change, cybersecurity, and new energy technologies have had considerable domestic and geopolitical implications and require unprecedented levels of interdisciplinary analysis.

There no longer exists policy disciplines—and, therefore congressional committees of jurisdiction—that do not handle matters related to science and technology. As a particularly striking example, Congress recently came under heavy criticism from the media and the public after joint hearings before the Senate Judiciary and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committees where members displayed a surprising lack of basic understanding of social media and technology when inquiring into Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The debate is still raging, with a former Facebook co-founder recently mentioning Congress’s failure to force a reckoning for the company because of its failure to “understand how tech works.” As scientific developments and technological innovation reach greater heights, the barrier to comprehension becomes a bigger challenge for nonexperts and, importantly, the U.S. Congress.

Thankfully, there is a straightforward way for Congress to improve its ability to access unbiased technical expertise in order to better understand current challenges in American life and write responsive legislation: Reinstating the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Recently, the House appropriated the OTA for fiscal year 2020, and the Senate should match this request. This column explores the history of the OTA; makes the case that legislative science and technology resources are an urgent need; and argues that the OTA can and should be reinstated quickly and cost-effectively. It also gives recommendations on how internal logistics can be updated for a new OTA.

History and success of the OTA

The OTA was established in 1972 as a nonpartisan body tasked with identifying and examining the implications of science and technology applications as a legislative resource. The OTA functioned similarly to its executive branch counterpart, the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The OTA was created to respond to requests from Congress with authoritative and unbiased information concerning the “physical, biological, economic, social, and political” effects of science-related developments and technological applications. During its existence, the office released more than 750 studies on a broad range of topics including, but not exclusive to, agricultural technology, medical technology, automation in labor, health science, energy resources, space technology, and transportation issues. These reports would highlight scientific consensus where it existed and explain the where and why of points of disagreement or lack of knowledge. Precluded from giving policy recommendations, OTA reports would include nonbiased assessments of the broad consequences of the relevant policy alternatives. It also provided its experts for congressional testimonies and follow-up questions from Congress after the publication of a report.

Congressional committee leaders commissioned the reports, and the OTA’s assessment board sanctioned them. The Technology Assessment Board (TAB) was comprised of 12 members of Congress with equal representation from each political party and chamber. The TAB would appoint an advisory board comprised of 10 experts from academia, industry, and other nongovernmental persons of relevant authority responsible for conducting the research and analysis. Additionally, an external advisory panel made of specific issue-area experts was often created to supplement in-house expertise and review products. This unique structure gave OTA the reputation and resources it needed to conduct useful work for Congress.

In 1995, despite its relatively small costs, OTA was closed as part of then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s effort to reduce the size of the legislative branch staff, which, in the long run, has reduced members’ ability to grapple with complex issues and arguably has helped increase the influence of lobbyists in lieu of respected in-house expertise. The remaining congressional resources for science and technical support—including science and technology functions within the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional Research Service (CRS), and the National Academies of Science (NAS)—did not and do not have the internal structure, structural autonomy, and culture that made the OTA so successful in providing direct, on-demand science and technology support to lawmakers. Existing resources, while authoritative and prolific, are either beholden to government funding streams (and thus cannot be commissioned for work unrelated to existing programs) or lack the concentrated in-house mission that gave the OTA the ability to dive into the science in order to synthesize and analyze policy avenues and their potential outcomes and repercussions.

Current science and technology legislative topics

Since the OTA’s untimely end, developments in science and technology have boomed, with many experts pointing to the arrival of the fourth Industrial Revolution. In the absence of OTA, there have been emergent or approaching innovations in the “internet of things,” fifth-generation telecommunications (5G), artificial intelligence, blockchain technologies, advanced computing powers, and gene editing. Additionally, developing technical threats to livelihoods and U.S. security, such as climate change and cyber threats, are outpacing Congress’s ability to act.

In particular, Congress’ most recent and highly publicized stumbles on novel ethical challenges of technology have revealed the importance of technical and science literacy. Congressional considerations—such as how much responsibility behemoth social media companies should have over their enormous amount of user-generated content or the limits of personal data privacy in face of law enforcement inquiry—left the American people with deep concerns about Congress’ ability to keep up with emerging technology. Unequipped with foundation knowledge, Congress is unprepared to effectively approach the high-level dilemmas the American people must grapple with.

Unfortunately, Congress has suffered from a marked lack of focused science and technology advisory for decades, and relevant legislative topics have been subject to an undue degree of politicization, misinterpretation, misguided pressure from an uninformed public, and influence from biased interest groups. Underequipped for the modern complexity of legislative topics, Congress is even more woefully underprepared for assessing emerging science and technology challenges. In a 2016 survey of House and Senate senior staff, only 24 percent said that they were very satisfied with congressional access to “high-quality, nonpartisan policy expertise” despite 81 percent saying they found this access to be “very important” to their duties. Congress needs to significantly raise the bar for technical expertise as a legislative resource.

What would a revived OTA would look like?

Thankfully, the statute that initially institutionalized the OTA, the Technology Assessment Act of 1972, was never removed from the books and only needs appropriated funds from Congress to begin the revival process. Although a modern OTA could look very different from its previous iteration, the needed changes are a second chance at fully optimizing OTA’s functioning and modernizing its internal processes.

An oft cited deficiency of the OTA was the length of time it took to produce reports for congressional committees, although it should be noted that there are similar criticisms of the congressional science and technology resources that exist today. A modern OTA would inherently produce deliverables timelier than its initial run by nature of modern digital communications and the breadth of research materials that now exist online. The new age of rapid, electronic communications would also ease the convening of the advisory panel, shared staff capabilities, and the general communications between OTA staff, advisers, and Congress as reports are researched and drafted. OTA advisory board experts would also be able to provide more rapid response to committee staff as needed following the delivery of reports.

A newly instated OTA should have a focus on serialized products where needed, with timely information delivered to Congress in shorter, useable nuggets, culminating into a full report. This would give members more time to ask questions and redirect OTA staff as their own legislative research development proceeds. This would allow the OTA to have timely influence in matters that are proceeding quickly through the legislative process without compromising the quality of research. There should also be a cultural prioritization of liaising with congressional staffers during this process instead of the exclusively high-level communication with committee leaders and members of Congress that was previously the norm. Because staffers perform the majority of legislative research and drafting, communicating with this audience is integral in order for a reinstated OTA to be optimally successful.

Toward the end of its run, the OTA began to develop a more usable, Congress-friendly format for their deliverables. A new OTA should use these previously underutilized formats, with executive summaries, sized-down report briefs, and clarifying informational blurbs nested into reports so that members of Congress and their staffers can digest the presented information as easily as possible. The several general formats with varying lengths that the OTA previously generated should be retained, and the shorter formats such as memoranda should not be exclusively used for follow-up deliverables, as they were previously.

A reinstated OTA should also have the authority to self-commission deliverables when necessary for committees that may not recognize the scientific dimension of their work. Certain congressional committees have no obviously direct connection with science and technology, and members cannot be assumed able to perceive the underlying science and technology connections or understand enough to knowledgeably direct a line of inquiry. For example, congressional Judiciary and Intelligence committees have faced issues centered on highly technical items such as data privacy, foreign political influence on social media, and cryptography. Without the self-commissioning aspect of the OTA, several committees could be left underprepared to knowledgeably approach significant matters to the United States.

If the OTA is recommissioned at a lower funding level than in the past, resource limitations should be overcome through collaboration with external contractors and the alternative legislative resources such as the GAO, NAS, and CRS. In the previous iteration of the OTA, assessments were initially performed by contractors as internal capacity was built up alongside incrementally increasing funding. Although a level of funding equal to the height of the previous OTA would be ideal—equivalent to less than 1 percent of the total congressional budget at the time—the structure of the office can be built up over time.

Conclusion

For the United States to foster a culture of responsible stewardship of science and technology, Congress must be willing to reshape its approach to these matters. Reviving the OTA would enshrine a congressional commitment to acknowledge the growing influence science and technology play in arenas of government jurisdiction as well as to concertedly and knowledgably act on this influence when called for. The need for a functionally independent legislative resource for science and technology is growing at an unignorable pace, and the United States must get smart on these subjects.

A reasonable level of foresight is integral in informing successful legislation, and technical expertise is increasingly becoming a prerequisite for this process. As Isaac Asimov once said, “Any fool can tell a crisis when it arrives. The real service to the state is to detect it in embryo.” To be an effective leader of democracy in a quickly advancing world, the United States government must prove themselves willing and capable to evolve with the times.

Bianca Majumder is a research associate for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress.

The author would like to thank Peter Blair, Rodney Sobin, Susan Wood, Kristina Costa, Alison Cassady, and Luke Bassett for their contributions and advice.