Monthly Archive for February, 2009

Representative Rush Holt’s Statement at AAAS

Representative Rush Holt prepared the  statement below for the session, “Science Advice for Congress: Do we need a new paradigm?” at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

The accelerating pace at which technology touches every aspect of our lives means that every decision we make in Congress increasingly is influenced by science and technology. While we do not suffer from a lack of information on Capitol Hill, we do not have the time and resources to gauge the validity, credibility, and usefulness of the large amount of information and advice we receive in order to make knowledgeable, well-reasoned decisions on a widerange of issues. The purpose of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was to assist Members of Congress in this task.

As a forward-looking entity, OTA both provided an important long-term perspective and alerted Congress to scientific and technological components of policy that might not be obvious. By 1995, for example, OTA already had written on such topics, now current, as “Electronic Surveillance in a Digital Age” and the “Potential Environmental Impacts of Bioenergy Crop Production.” More reports like “Losing a Million Minds: Confronting the Tragedy of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias” might help Congress navigate health care reform. And the additional information that could have been gathered since the 1995 report “Innovation and Commercialization of Emerging Technologies” might have helped guide Congress more effectively through our current economic crisis. A clear appreciation of the current science and technology involved in each of these topics is even more important today than when these assessments were first written.

According to a survey of the 535 members of the 111th Congress, the membership includes three physicists, one chemist, six engineers, and one microbiologist. Most members of Congress avoid science at all costs, but even the handful of trained scientists cannot master the particulars of every issue. The OTA was not there especially for the scientists or exclusively the nonscientists. It was there for all of Congress. Every member needs access to unbiased technical and scientific assessments finished in a timeframe appropriate for Congress, written in a language that is understood by Members of Congress, and crafted by those who are familiar with the functions of Congress. The issues have grown more complex, but our tools to evaluate and understand them have not kept pace.

When OTA was disbanded, Congress gave itself a lobotomy. Our national policies have suffered ever since. In the years since the demise of the OTA, no group or combination of groups has been able to assume OTA’s place as the provider of scientific and technical assessment and advice to Congress. It is important to recognize that policy decisions are value judgments that cannot be made by the balance of facts alone. But it is critical that policymakers have the facts they need to make wise choices. In the absence of OTA, we have not gotten the information – or the analysis – we need to do the people’s work. We need the help that only an office like OTA, one that is of Congress and for Congress, can provide.

Document of the Day: The Technology Assessment Act of 1972, December 19, 1972

Today’s document of the day summarizes the key concepts, background and rationale underlying the creation of the Office of Technology Assessment. The report, by  Walter H. Hahn and Rosemary Chalk of the Congressional Research Service,  also gives a brief  legislative history of the Act (P.L. 92-484).

Technology assessment was first discussed in the House Subcommittee on Science and Astronautics. According to the report,

The committee began serious work on the assessment concept in 1965, and on October 17, 1966, the Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Development published a report which examined the consequences and secondary impacts of technical innovations. This report was the first to use the term “technology assessment,” and the  authors cited technological unemployment, toxic pesticides, pollution, exhaustion of resources, the disposal of radioactive wastes, and invasions of personal liberty by electronic snooping and computer data banks as examples of the potentially dangerous consequences of technology. In view of these unforeseeable impacts, the subcommittee concluded that an “early warning” system for both the good and bad results of technology would be of great use to Congress.

In describing why this office should be a part of Congress the report noted,

The proposition of this Act is that the Congress is the proper national forum for deliberating and deciding upon conflicting goals, values, priorities, resource allocations and the distribution of benefits, risks, and costs, all of which are involved in technology assessment.  To carry out these responsibilities, The Congress should be one of the best informed institutions is this country.  Technology assessment alone will not achieve this desired state, but it does offer significant improvements to the current system.

This report is part of a growing colletion of historic documents found  here in the OTA Library.

The Bleeding Edge: Tech Predictions for 2009

David P. McClure | The CPA Technology Advisor | January 2009

A recent magazine column scores technology predictions for 2008 and makes new predictions for 2009.  One of the predictions is that a cabinet-level technology officer will be created in the new administration, which is based upon an idea floated by President Obama during his campaign.   Pointing out the need for such an office, the column states, “Since the Congress dismantled the Office of Technology Assessment more than a decade ago, the federal government has been forced to deal with rapidly evolving technologies with little or no independent guidance and no central point from which to make national policies to advance technology utilization. I’m all for changing that.”

How to fix global warming and gain energy security

Peter Montague | Rachel’s Democracy and Health News | December 18, 2008

A newsletter article discusses a recent Stanford study by Mark Z. Jacobson comparing ten ways to generate electricity and two ways to make ethanol fuel.  When analyzing the study, the author asks “Where is the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment when you need it?”