By Barton Reppert
January 5, 1988
Surviving a Rocky Start, Science Agency Wins Over Most Skeptics
Politicians usually aren’t scientists and they’re often stumped by political questions with scientific dimensions–such as whether to build a supersonic transport, ban DDT or get behind solar energy.
Fifteen years ago, to help with such questions, Congress created a tiny agency, by Washington standards–the Office of Technology Assessment.
Conservatives were wary. Some saw it as a shadow brain trust for an ambitious Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass.), one of the first to argue that Congress needed its own science adviser. But now, OTA has largely overcome those suspicions and won a role as a dispassionate, nonpartisan player in the legislative process.
OTA has issued authoritative research on issues ranging from health care policy and advanced computer technology to the feasibility of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense system.
It has looked into electronic surveillance, genetic engineering, use of lie detector machines and the management of hazardous waste.
John H. Gibbons, 58, a physicist and environmental specialist who has headed the agency since 1979, foresees an increasing demand for his agency’s analytical talents.
“Technology as it influences international trade, national defense, environment, our economic growth and progress, health care–all the way across the board, those problems are going to get more vexing, not less vexing, in the years ahead,” Gibbons said in an interview.
OTA remains the smallest of the agencies Congress has created for its guidance. Its sister agencies include the General Accounting Office, which conducts investigations of government programs to help Congress in its oversight role; the Congressional Budget Office, which performs economic analysis; and the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, which answers inquiries from Congress on many nontechnical issues and does not hire outside experts.
“We have learned that there are big advantages in being small,” Gibbons said. “If you’re created to be small in size, you are constantly forced to the outside to get your information.”
With 145 people and a budget of $16.6 million, OTA conducts about 30 assessments at a time, beginning between 15 and 20 new projects every year.
Full-scale assessments–involving use of outside specialists, convening of advisory panels and an intensive review process–take about 18 months and result in a report typically running 300 pages or longer.
The agency is housed in a five-story colonial-style building a 10-minute walk from the Capitol. “A few blocks away is just about right,” Gibbons observed. “It keeps you removed from the daily fire fights but close enough to be part of the process.”
OTA strives to argue all sides of an issue, providing a variety of policy options for Congress. John P. Andelin Jr., an assistant director, said, “Essentially our work is laying out intellectual road maps.”
Overseeing OTA is the Technology Assessment board, a 12-member bipartisan panel of senators and House members headed by Rep. Morris K. Udall (D.-Ariz.). A member of the board, Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D.-Calif.) said, “OTA has acquired a real reputation for quality performance, and its products are being used very widely.”
He said the fact that OTA reports try to present all points of view “is both a strength and a weakness.”
“From my standpoint I think there should at least be the opportunity for OTA to make a recommendation for what is the best policy option under the given circumstances,” Brown said. “I think we ought to move in that direction.”
OTA recently found it is capable of stirring up controversy. Advocates of unorthodox therapies for cancer charged that the agency is bungling a study of unusual cancer treatments. They said that the OTA official in charge is likely to be biased because of his previous experience at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, a bastion of conventional cancer treatment. Gibbons disputed that charge.
Leading up to the establishment of OTA were years of frustration in a Congress trying to come to grips with technology issues–among them nuclear weapons testing, DDT and other pesticides and the U.S. supersonic transport.
According to Gibbons, “Making decisions involving technology was just getting tougher because there’s no free lunch out there. There’s nothing that has all gain.”
OTA’s early years were rocky amid allegations that the agency’s secret agenda was to further Kennedy’s political ambitions. He was the first chairman of the congressional board. There also were suspicions that OTA would have an antitechnology bias.
“A lot of people were very concerned that OTA might come in and be a naysayer on technology,” Gibbons said. “I think that was a particular concern of the conservatives. But I think that concern has been essentially allayed.”
He observed, “We enjoy a lot of support from the conservatives now and from the business community, because they see the place not as negative about technology but essentially technology neutral. We’re full of technologists, we have a lot of technological optimists.”
Born on the eve of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, OTA has devoted considerable attention since then to energy issues–among them nuclear power, prospects for discoveries in domestic oil and gas, the federal role in energy research and regulatory intervention in the energy marketplace.
By the early 1980s, however, the agency began moving into other areas, including national security and arms control, where OTA’s work has drawn plaudits and sharp criticism.
Peter J. Sharfman, an international security program manager, said that a 1984 paper on ballistic missile defense “stirred up a tremendous amount of controversy.”
The paper by Ashton B. Carter, then with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concluded: “The prospect that emerging ‘Star Wars’ technologies, when further developed, will provide a perfect or near-perfect defense system, literally removing from the hands of the Soviet Union the ability to do socially mortal damage to the United States with nuclear weapons, is so remote that it should not serve as the basis of public expectation or national policy about ballistic missile defense.”
Pentagon officials argued that the paper was technically flawed and asked that it be withdrawn, but OTA stood its ground.
“If you look today at the principal findings, you will discover that they are the conventional wisdom,” Sharfman said. “In fact, you will discover that the SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative] Organization would agree with those findings today.”
Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska), vice chairman of the congressional board, remains critical. “I think they wasted a lot of time trying to be the focal point for a lot of dissidents,” Stevens said.
He said he was concerned that some OTA studies go too far afield from the agency’s charter to analyze technology issues. “When it stays within its assigned area it does a good job,” Stevens said, adding: “It’s gone beyond the area of technology in some instances and gotten into social policy.”
Copyright ©1984, Associated Press. All rights reserved.