By David Burnham
New York Times
January 12, 1984
WASHINGTON, D.C.–A tiny Federal agency with an extraordinary mandate has become a powerful magnet for government officials from all over the world.
In just the last year, for example, more than 100 visitors have come to Washington from 25 countries including China, France, Indonesia, Denmark, Egypt, Britain, Brazil and Australia to find out how the agency works and what it produces.
The focus of all this international interest is an agency that is largely unknown to the American people, the Office of Technology Assessment. Created over 10 years ago as an arm of Congress, it was given the difficult assignment of trying to anticipate, understand and describe how the world’s new technologies will effect the people, environment and institutions of the United States.
In a world where dozens of powerful new chemicals, startling scientific discoveries, far-reaching computer systems, earth-shattering weapons and potent drugs present difficult new social problems on almost a weekly basis, the challenge of this job is a major one, apparently of interest to both the democracies and the authoritarian states. The head of the agency, Dr. John H. Gibbons, visited the Soviet Academy of Sciences last spring to describe his agency’s work.
Pressures From Congress
Dr. Gibbons is a 55-year-old physicist who has specialized in energy and environmental issues. With a permanent staff of 139 people and a $14.6 million budget that enables the agency to hire some 2,000 outside experts a year to work on special projects, Dr. Gibbons is generally credited with guiding the agency out of difficult waters in its first few years, when it was buffeted by political pressures from Congress.
“The problem is to keep the agency relevant to the political process but avoid partisan biases,” he said. “Our process of tapping national wisdom, stripped of bias and advocacy, has begun to make its mark.”
While many of the reports prepared by the OTA in the last few years have won wide praise, some critics doubt the agency’s work has much effect on the policy decisions made by the Federal Government on such volatile and complex subjects as acid rain, the financing of new missile systems and improving the performance of the nation’s schools.
“The need is not for more seers and forecasters,” said Lawrence Tribe, a professor at Harvard Law School, one of the early advocates of technology assessment. “The real problem is to find ways to make such advice more salient.”
Professor Tribe contended in an interview that the principle problem with OTA was outside its control. “I think that to be effective, there would have to be a similar effort in the executive branch,” he said. “Unfortunately, however, the last two or three administrations have gradually dismantled and politicized the scientific advisory machinery at the White House level so that the Congressional effort seems to make relatively little difference.”
Representative George E. Brown Jr., Democrat of California who is a member of the agency’s board, has a different concern. “There is no question that the office has escaped the controversy of its earlier years and is now providing Congress with useful material, a distillation of the best knowledge on a subject and a list of policy options that Congress might adopt,” he said. “But I am not sure that that is what we require, that rather than possible options, we need clear strategic advice.”
A brief description of some of the agency’s recent publications suggest the wide range of its concern. At the request of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, for example, the agency prepared a 151-page study, “The Effects of Nuclear War,” which described the estimated casualties and destruction that would result from the explosion of nuclear bombs at various altitudes over Detroit and Leningrad. This authoritative study has become one of the agency’s most requested reports.
In a second study, undertaken for the House Committee on Education and Labor, the staff and consultants of the OTA analyzed “Information Technology and its Impact on American Education,” describing the advantages and disadvantages of various possible actions Congress might consider in this area to improve the performance of the nation’s schools and their students.
At the request of several Congressional committees, the agency prepared a 331-page report entitled “Impacts of Applied Genetics.” It described the process and potential effects of man’s rapidly increasing ability to manipulate the inherited characteristics of plants, animals and microorganisms.
In the agency’s history, according to several staff members and others who have followed its history, the OTA has gone through several phases. At the beginning, under a former Connecticut Congressman, Emilio Q. Daddario, many of the staff members worked almost directly for the Senators and House members who served on the agency’s board, and most of its projects were directly related to the political needs or these members.
Early Days of Criticism
Then, Russell Peterson, a highly regarded industrial scientist who now is the president of the National Audubon Society, became the head of OTA. Mr. Peterson won the right to have complete control of staff appointments. But he ran into criticism from Congress because he tended to ignore requests for help on immediate problems and concentrate all of the agency’s research on long-term projects.
Dr. Gibbons, it is generally agreed, has retained the right to hire his own staff while at the same time becoming somewhat more responsive to the demands of Congressional committees for assistance on immediate problems.
“OTA is doing good, sometimes excellent work,” said Frank Press, the current head of the National Science Academy, a nonprofit organization that earns most its keep doing similar kinds of research for executive branch agencies such as the Energy Department. “The only reservation I have is that it has become too popular with Congress and is not able to devote enough of its time to looking further into the future at the very large technical questions.”
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