Technology Assessment: Current Trends and the Myth of a Formula

Peter D. Blair
Assistant Director, Office of Technology Assessment
adapted from plenary remarks at the First Meeting of the International Association of Technology Assessment and Forecasting Institutions
May 2, 1994
Bergen, Norway

“As new discoveries are made, new truths discovered, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”

Thomas Jefferson

Enormous changes around the world–the fall of the Berlin Wall, the truly historic changes in South Africa, the economic emergence of the Pacific rim, and the globalization of the world economy–have proven the wisdom of Jefferson’s insistence on maintaining flexibility in institutions of public governance. But in addition to constant economic and political change, governments and public institutions are challenged by the rapid evolution of science and technology and all the effects that flow from that evolution. Jefferson–a technologist–would agree that an ability to share experiences and to better gauge the impacts of technology on societies around the world are essential to our future.
For the first two decades of the Office of Technology Assessment’s existence, its activities have often been referred to as a kind of experiment for trying to incorporate a better understanding of technology and science into the legislative policy process. One result of that experiment is the emergence of a consensus that it is impossible to reduce technology assessment to a formula. At OTA, there are many variations in the methods and approaches used in the work, and the agency’s approach is, to be sure, but one variation of how technology assessment is viewed in different institutional settings. OTA doesn’t have everything right in the process of technology assessment–no one does, and those that suggest the contrary should consider the advice of Will Rogers: “What gets us into trouble isn’t so much what we don’t know, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” Nonetheless, many lessons have been learned over the years.
The OTA was created in 1972 by the U.S. Congress to “provide early indications of the probable beneficial and adverse impacts of the applications of technology.” This original mandate has evolved somewhat over time: the agency is now regarded as fulfilling a more general role of providing congressional committees, which are the key policy formulating vehicles in the Congress, with objective analysis of public policy issues related to scientific and technological change. This new mandate actually incorporates the original mandate, but it is much broader and more problem-oriented, and in practice the agency’s activities are almost totally determined by the committees of Congress. The transformation of the agency’s mandate came about due to a mixture of pragmatism and of priorities in Congressional activities, but this transformation explains the way the agency operates today.

The Office of Technology Assessment: A Congressional Innovation
The efforts to create an institution in the U.S. like OTA began in the mid-1960s when Congressman Emilio Daddario, then Chairman of the Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development in the House of Representatives, introduced legislation to establish a Technology Assessment Board–much like a committee of Congress. After much heated debate in the House over several Congressional sessions, a new version of the bill was introduced seeking to create a new technology assessment agency in the Legislative branch of government. Many outside the United States don’t appreciate the significance of such an action. In the United States, executive branch government agencies are created and retired quite frequently–at present we have hundreds. But in the legislative branch–a branch separate but equal to the executive branch–agency creations are very rare. In fact, at the time of OTA’s beginning there had been no such additions since the creation of the General Accounting Office in 1921, over 50 years earlier. Moreover, to date there are only four such agencies: OTA, GAO, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
The legislative initiative that created OTA actually started as a fairly modest proposal to provide Congress with a better analytical perspective on technology-related policy, but it ended up being successful politically through a fascinating coalition of interests in Congress that actually had very different objectives.
First, there was the small cadre of legislators with a vision about technology assessment and its role in the legislative process. Second, there were many in Congress who sought to react institutionally to the then recent creations of executive agencies such the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House. Indeed, in 1972 many viewed the creation of OTA, as well as the creation of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) two years later, as part of a Congressional reassertion of authority following the Nixon presidency. In a twist of interesting irony that seems consistent with the agency’s bipartisan perspective, OTA’s longest-serving director, Jack Gibbons, went to the White House in 1992 to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy for a Democratic president, having served in the Republican Nixon White House in 1972.
Finally, another important element of the context at the time of OTA’s creation was that a number of major policy issues arose during the Nixon presidency that had very technical dimensions to them, such as the U.S. investment in supersonic transport (SST), the antiballistic missile system , and the Trans-Alaska pipeline. With such issues, many in Congress felt they were at a considerable disadvantage in dealing with the Executive branch, which had the established agencies to draw upon as resources along with these newly created entities.
As Senator Edward Kennedy put it in the debates considering the legislation that led to OTA’s creation, “without an OTA the role of Congress in national science policy would become more and more perfunctory and more and more dependent on administration facts and figures, with little opportunity for independent Congressional evaluation.”
That argument and the political coalition just described led to the passage in both houses of Congress of the Technology Assessment Act of 1972, OTA’s enabling statute. Funds were appropriated for OTA’s operations in 1973 and the agency began operations in 1974 with a handful of staff which has grown to over 200 today along with a portfolio of activities that spans the entire Congress. Actually, OTA’s staff is composed of a core permanent staff of 143 that is supplemented with temporary staff recruited to meet the needs of current assessments. Both permanent and temporary staff include professionals from many disciplines, over half with Ph.D.s.
The key organizational elements created in OTA’s enabling statute are the Technology Assessment Board, known as TAB, composed of members of the House and Senate; the Technology Assessment Advisory Council (TAAC), composed primarily of private citizens appointed by TAB; and the Office of the Director, which oversees day-to-day operations of the agency.

Technology Assessment Board (TAB)
The Technology Assessment Board is the central organizational element of OTA’s enabling statute. Its composition is unique among the legislative support agencies. TAB is a 12-member governing board of OTA, with six members of the Senate and six of the House, divided equally between the political parties. The principal responsibilities of TAB are to appoint the Director, to authorize the initiation of assessments requested by Congressional Committees, to approve the budget authority associated with those assessments, and finally to authorize delivery of assessment reports to requesting committees and the public by certifying that OTA has carried out its assessment process faithfully–that is, that OTA has considered all the relevant stakeholder interests and issues and undergone extensive external review. OTA receives an annual appropriation from Congress that is allocated to OTA’s support operations and among OTA active projects as authorized by TAB.
In the early days of the agency, many thought that TAB would not work. It was predicted by some that TAB would either become a disinterested body or a dysfunctional one due to partisan disagreements. In fact, neither has occurred. Board members are appointed by the leadership in both the House and the Senate and include some of the most powerful members of Congress. The board meets approximately every six weeks when Congress is in session and usually exhibits a strong turnout with disagreements seldom reflecting party or ideological lines.
One incident illustrates the effective functioning of the Technology Assessment Board. A TAB member voted in the board meeting to authorize the release of a somewhat controversial study on the textile industry, acknowledging that the assessment process had been completed effectively. The next day, however, he issued a press release politically criticizing some of the policy options identified in the report’s conclusions. Some felt that this was inconsistent and perhaps hypocritical, but actually he had honored both his responsibilities. First he honored his responsibility on the board by not letting the implications for his constituents of some identified policy options affect his position on the overall perspective of the report. At the same time he honored the political interests of his constituents by disagreeing with those options that were not in their interests.
In the early days of the agency TAB played a much stronger role in appointing staff and exerting more direct involvement in assessments, but TAB recognized in the late 1970s that in order for the agency to carry out objective analysis, the day-to-day operation, including especially appointment of project staff and advisory panelists, had to be separated from the members’ offices. This facet of OTA’s operations has been crucial to its reputation for objectivity over the years, and one that those planning or developing government-sponsored technology assessment institutions should consider carefully.

Technology Assessment Advisory Council (TAAC)
The Technology Assessment Advisory Council is essentially OTA’s outside visiting committee. It is appointed by TAB and meets every six months to review the overall direction of the agency and to periodically carry out more detailed reviews of the agency’s research programs.

Office of the Director
The Director is responsible for day-to-day operations, hiring of staff, interaction with TAB and TAAC, and strategic planning for the agency. OTA has had four directors: Daddario, who was essentially the founding inspiration for the agency; Russell Peterson who, while serving only a year, effected important institutional changes, especially in separating OTA staff from Members’ staffs and in strategically planning the agency’s agenda; Jack Gibbons, who during the late 1970s and 1980s presided over 13 years of growth of the agency–both in size and in reputation; and the current director, Roger Herdman, who assumed the helm in 1993 and has been successful in building the agency’s strengths and relationships to the legislative process.

OTA’s Process of Technology Assessment
Generally OTA undertakes assessments at the request of the Chairs of Congressional Committees. Typically, an OTA assessment takes 18-24 months to complete and costs on the order of $500,000 in direct costs (although indirect costs are often substantial). The assessments seldom offer specific recommendations. Rather, they articulate the options and the consequences of alternative options.
A great deal of effort goes into defining the scope of an assessment once it has been requested by a Committee Chair. Since the agency frequently has many more requests than it can accommodate, the directors often consult with other Committees of jurisdiction and interest as well as with the TAB board informally to help establish priorities fairly. Once the scope is established, a proposal is prepared for formal consideration by the board and, if approved, the assessment commences.
Currently the agency is addressing a broad range of assessments from energy and environmental technology transfer to eastern Europe, to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to global telecommunications policy, to biological pest control, to health care reform. The key elements of an assessment newly underway typically are:

* a comprehensive advisory panel of technical experts and relevant stakeholders;
* a core OTA project team including an experienced project director;
* contractors selected to support major analytical tasks;
* in-house research efforts by the project team;
* workshops convened with additional experts and stakeholders to obtain the most current information possible;
* extensive peer review of draft reports;
* and finally, delivery of reports through congressional hearings, briefings, and public release;

The advisory panels are a particularly important feature of OTA’s process. They help refine the project scope, identify additional relevant resources and perspectives on the issues being addressed, and provide the core of extensive peer review. The panel is central, but OTA takes responsibility for the final product. It does not seek consensus from the panel because most often if there were a possible consensus decision or course of action, OTA probably wouldn’t have been asked to do the study in the first place. The principal final product is a report, along with summaries, report briefs, personal briefings for members and committees, commercial publishers’ reprints, and most recently electronic delivery over the Internet and Capitol Hill’s own local area network.
The process briefly outlined here has worked well for OTA as it has evolved over the years in the organizational framework of the U.S. Congress, and many aspects of it may be valuable in other institutional settings. In particular, OTA has some unique features that make it valuable to the Congress’s policy process: it is governed by a bipartisan board of politicians that respect the agency’s position and perspective; it has a statutory advisory council that reports to that board; it has a multidisciplinary staff that helps minimize ideological and/or methodological bias in analysis; and it draws on outside resources for the bulk of its analysis–it often serves as translator of the technical literature. There is often more heat than light shed when policy mixes with technology, and simply explaining the context of a problem clearly can be of enormous benefit–as in the case when President Eisenhower was stunned to find that half of the U.S. population was of below average intelligence. Finally, OTA’s process includes extensive outside peer review, including often as many as a hundred reviewers from many different perspectives.
In summary, Jefferson eloquently pointed out the necessity of government’s ability to change with the times. That thought was visionary but it lacked an orderly way of identifying the implications of the technology dimension of those changing times. The Office of Technology Assessment and other international organizations dedicated to developing the art of technology assessment and forecasting may help fill that gap.
Peter Blair was OTA’s Assistant Director of the Industry, Commerce, and International Security Division

2 Responses to “Technology Assessment: Current Trends and the Myth of a Formula”

  • Could this have been the provenance for Donald Rumsfeld’s most compelling legacy, regarding fact and fiction, truth and uncertainty, the known and the unknown?

    “What gets us into trouble isn’t so much what we don’t know, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
    – Will Rogers

    America needs the OTA.

  • There are two weaknesses of the old OTA that will likely keep it from being re-funded any time soon: OTA’s commitment to nonpartisan policy recommendations, and OTA’s commitment to including as many different stakeholders in the process as possible. With the Congress in the grip of neoliberal economic policies, it is nearly certain that business and industry will be favored over other considerations for the foreseeable future.

    That said, a revitalized OTA, having more contact with individual Senators and Representatives, could facilitate eliminating the gridlock in Congress by once again bringing future-oriented policy insight into the legislation process at early stages. We need no less. And the future demands it of us!

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