Carl Sagan Bemoans Loss of OTA

Rajiv Narayan|Upworthy

Narayan of Upworthy found a Charlie Rose interview  with Carl Sagan from 1966 that  “…gave me the goosebumps,” he said.  In the interview Carl Sagan asks “Who is making all the decisions about science and technology that are going to determine the type of future that our children are going to live in?  Just some members of Congress? But there’s no more than a handful of Members of  Congress with any background in science  at all!”

Sagan bemoans  the  loss of an important source of bi-partisan, competent advice for Congress in science and technology-  the Office of Technology Assessment.

Non-Partisan Advice Needed By Congress

Jathan Sadowski| the Atlantic |October 26, 2012

According to Sadowski’s technology post, The Much-Needed and Sane Congressional Office That Gingrich Killed Off and We Need Back,  OTA was started because “Congress recognized that it could not afford to wander blindly forward without an organization that would bridge technical expertise and political decision-making.”  To prevent “capture by a particular political party,”  OTA was overseen by a balanced bipartisan congressional Board with six Members from both the House and the Senate.

Sadowski pointed out that  OTA released over 750 studies on an “impressive range of topics,”  including the environment, national security, health, and social issues.

The dismantling of the agency in 1995 “on the Gingrich Republican’s altar of slashed budgets” was “an unfortunate blow,” according to Sadowski.  However,  “there has been vocal support by many prominent scholars and politicians to either re-fund it or establish a similar method of technology assessment.”


Congress Lacks Technical Knowledge

Luke Rosiak | The Cutting Edge | June 6, 1012

“High turnover and lack of experience in congressional offices are leaving staffs increasingly without policy and institutional knowledge, a Washington Times analysis of a decade of House and Senate personnel records shows — leaving a vacuum that usually is filled by lobbyists,” according to this blog post.

As policy questions more frequently hinge on the nuances of technical matters, members of Congress are operating without the researchers and topical experts on which they have relied to cast informed votes. With the shuttering of the Office of Technology Assessment, a 200-member congressional support agency that closed in 1995 under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, members who are largely lawyers and rhetorical masters are asked to differentiate between competing proposals that only scientists might be able to evaluate effectively.

The technology office researched and summarized scientific and technological matters, ranging from acid rain to wireless phones, for members who, with an average age of 64 in the Senate and 58 in the House, are legislating on matters such as the Internet, which most spent much of their lives without. Typical of its work products was a decades-ago warning on the effect of technology on copyright law, a question lawmakers contentiously grappled with this year. “It helped us to … better oversee the science and technology programs within the federal establishment,” said then-Rep. Amo Houghton, New York Republican, who served nine terms before retiring in 2005. The role of CRS, which provides research on topics beyond science and technology, has also been rolled back.

OTA published several reports about technology and copyright law, including: Copyright and Home Copying: Technology Challenges the Law, Finding A Balance: Computer Software, Intellectual Property and the Challenge of Technological Change, and Intellectual Property Rights in an Age of Electronics and Information.

Records show that a many congressional staff leave for better paying positions at lobbying firms,  where they prepare policy papers to influence their former colleagues – but with the interests of their new employers in mind, according to the article.

“Staff are incredibly vulnerable to this,” according to Daniel Schuman, a former Congressional Research Service (CRS) lawyer who now studies policy at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.  “They’re trying to do a very complicated job with limited resources.”

Opportunities for Congress to Increase Transparency

Daniel Schuman | Sunlight Foundation Blog | May 24, 2012

The Sunlight Foundation, in this blog post,  calls on the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee to take measures to improve transparency and openness.  Its recommendations  include reinstating the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), as well as improving public access to legislative information in THOMAS, continuing to fund the Office of Congressional Ethics, requiring  the Congressional Research Service to publish its reports online, frequently updating the  Constitution Annotated (CONAN) online,  making reports to Congress from federal agencies  available online, and publishing House spending information in a data-friendly format.

According to the Sunlight Foundation Blog, the House has promised “to implement common-sense transparency measures this session.”

Science Questions for Candidates

Bora Zivkovic | Scientific American/Observations | May 23, 2012

The Scientific American recently asked its readers what questions they would like U. S. presidential candidates to answer, according to this blog post.  This survey is part of  The Citizens Agenda’s effort to have election coverage reflect  the interests of the citizens.

In summarizing his readers’ interests  Zivkovic said, “…all the questions are trying to get at this core issue: are the candidates reality-based?”

The largest number of questions submitted by Observations’ readers were about science education and the role of government in science.  Among many questions about funding for science education and research was one about OTA, “Will you support re-establishment of the Office of Technology Assessment to aid officials in proper evaluation of complex scientific issues? If not, why?”

Other science topics nominated for discussion are evolution and climate change.


Gingrich Said To Be Pro-Science but Anti-Expertise

Nicholas Thompson|  New Yorker Culture Desk | January 6, 2012

In his  blog, “Republicans vs. Science: Ranking the Candidates,” Thompson evaluates the science and technology  policies of the Republican candidates.    Newt Gingrich had the highest ranking – even though, as Speaker, he abolished the Office of Technology Assessment, “a move reminiscent of Nixon abolishing the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy,” according to Thompson.

Bruce Bartlett also points out Gingrich’s inconsistencies in his N.Y. Times  Economix blog, “Gingrich and the Destruction of Congressional Expertise.” He said that professional Congressional staff members – especially those with technical expertise – had been an obstacle to Mr. Gingrich’s “grandiose schemes.”  “To remove this obstacle, Mr. Gingrich did everything in his power to dismantle Congressional institutions that employed people with the knowledge, training and experience to know a harebrained idea when they saw it,” according to Bartlett.

“In addition to decimating committee budgets,” Bartlett added, “he also abolished two really useful Congressional agencies, the Office of Technology Assessment and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. The former brought high-level scientific expertise to bear on legislative issues and the latter gave state and local governments an important voice in Congressional deliberations.”

Lorelei Kelly, in her Huffington Post article, “Dumb By Design: Gingrich’s Lobotomy of Congress and Today’s Dysfunction,”  mentions Gingrich’s  Contract for America,  which “wiped out the shared system of expert knowledge and analysis inside Congress. The bill made Congress dumb — on purpose. ”

The resulting brainpower losses included the Office of Technology Assessment,  the bipartisan Democratic Study Group, the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, and shared committee staffs.

Similar sentiments were echoed in:

Government Executive’s  Fed Blog, “ Defunct Agency Still Missed,” by Charles S. Clark;

the  Washington Post’s  Federal Eye, “When Congress wiped an agency off the map,” by Ed O’Keefe;

Closing a federal agency and making Congress dumber — thank Newt Gingrich” posted in Under the Mountain Bunker; and

Econbrowser, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the beancounters,” by Menzie Chinn.