Holt’s New Proposal to Restart OTA

James Dupree | Washington Insider | July 21, 2011

Washington Insider discussed the amendments to the 2012 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill  including one submitted by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ)  to re-establish OTA:

SEC. 211. There is appropriated, for salaries and expenses of the Office of Technology Assessment as authorized by the Technology Assessment Act of 1972 (2 U.S.C.471 et seq.),  hereby derived from the amount provided in this Act for the payment to the House Historic Buildings  Revitalization Trust Fund, $2,500,000.

According to Climate Science Watch blog   Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists, as well as a number of other scientific,  transparency, public health, and public interest groups, urged members to support Holt’s amendment.

The ASBMB Policy Blotter  blog post pointed out that that OTA “was a leader in practicing and encouraging delivery of public services in innovative and inexpensive ways.”

The amendment was voted down 176 to 235.  The results of the roll call vote can be seen here.

Leschine Testifies on Oil Spill

Thomas Leschine | June 9, 2010

Prof. Leschine recently spoke about the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico at a hearing of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In his testimony, Leschine said that inadequate risk assessment and underfunding of technologies for prevention and response have added to the problem.  Leschine directs the School of Marine Affairs at the College of Environment of the University of Washington.

Massive amounts of dispersants have been injected into the oil plume  with very little understanding about their effect on the environment,  Leschine added.

In his testimony Leschine pointed to an OTA report saying:

In 1990, shortly after the Exxon Valdez spill, the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment prepared at the request of the Congress a Background Paper, Coping with An Oiled Sea: An Analysis of Oil Spill Response Technologies. The report, strongly influenced by events then still unfolding in Prince William Sound, warned that future spills could easily overwhelm the technologies we had. It also cautioned that we can’t prepare for every contingency. The risk will never be zero. It found that industry had focused its efforts on preparing for small, relatively easily controllable spills in harbors and sheltered areas, and that it had likely oversold its ability to respond to major spills. Major spills in open water had up to that point seen recovery rates of no more than 10% of oil spilled, 6-8% in the case of Exxon Valdez, despite billions spent on response. I believe that this picture has not changed much today.

The OTA report found that the relative rarity of major spills was a major impediment to a sustained effort that would yield a higher-impact technology development program. The good news, perhaps, it also found the problem to be less a matter of needing dramatic engineering breakthroughs and more one requiring simply good engineering and sustained attention. It highlighted the need for good design and maintenance, training in deployment and use, and pre-positioning of response equipment in adequate quantities and types to deal with the really big events, like now. The report focused on technology to be sure, but also on decision-making, logistics, and training. Soft technologies, in other words.

In my view, OTA’s findings remain largely valid today, twenty years later. In many ways we are better prepared, but progress has been in fits and starts, issue attention cycle at work in my view. A robust approach to filling the tool kit, with the right hard and soft technologies, is needed.

Coping with Large Oil Spills

Fabius Maximus | May 17, 2010

This blog post,  About the long term effect of giant oil spills, says that past large oil spill have had few long-term effects. It provides a bit of  history about  oil spills saying, “Hundreds of tankers and oilers were sunk during WWII — 333 identified in the Pacific.  Many burned or spilled their oil when sunk.  Many remain on the seabed still loaded with crude oil or oil products.”

Also discussed is IXTOC I, a well blowout that  occured in 1979,  which spilled between 139 to 428 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The blog provides links  to several documents about  IXTOC I  including a 1990 OTA background paper, Coping with an Oiled Sea, which lists  it as the largest oil spill since 1967.

OTA had been asked to study the issue in response to the 1989 Exon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska.  In the foreword of the 1990 paper OTA Director, John H. Gibbons, says:

Cleaning up a discharge of millions of gallons of oil at sea under even moderate environmental conditions is an extraordinary problem. Current national capabilities to respond effectively to such an accident are marginal at best. OTA’s analysis shows that improvements could be made, and that those offering the greatest benefits would not require technological breakthroughs –just good engineering design and testing, skilled maintenance and training, timely access to and availability of the most appropriate and substantial systems, and the means to make rapid, informed decisions. One must understand, however, that even the best national response system will have inherent practical limitations that will hinder spill response efforts for catastrophic events– sometimes to a major extent. For that reason it is important to pay at least equal attention to preventive measures as to response systems. In this area, the proverbial ounce of prevention is worth many, many pounds of cure.

How Scientific is Modern Medicine?

Dana Ullman | Huffington Post | April 20, 2010

Scientific justification for medical treatments  is an ideal, or perhaps a marketing tool,  not a reality, according to this blog:

Doctors like to point to the “impressive” efficacy of their treatments in real serious diseases, like cancer, and doctors (and drug companies) are emphatic about asserting that anyone or any company that says (or even suggests) that they have a treatment that might help people with cancer are “quacks.” However, do they maintain this same standard when evaluating their own treatments?

The British Medical Journal and a report by OTA found little evidence to support common medical treatments, according to the blog.

The OTA report referred to was “Assessing the Efficacy and Safety of Medical Technologies” (1978). One  statement from that report has been quoted in many publications:  “It has been estimated that only 10 to 20 percent of all procedures currently used in medical practice have been shown to be efficacious by controlled trial”.  However, the last few words of that quote are often omitted.

In the report OTA points out that modern methods complement the older techniques of evaluating  medical technologies:

Traditionally, clinical experience, based on informal estimation techniques, has been the most important. Other techniques, such as epidemiological studies, formal consensus development,and randomized controlled clinical trials, however, are being used increasingly. The last technique, especially, has gained prominence (in the past 20 years) as a tool for assessing efficacy and safety.

OTA wasn’t asking  that treatments by “quacks”  be held to the same low standard as more traditional doctoring.  Their emphasis was on getting better data overall.  In the report, OTA says:

Given the shortcomings in current assessment systems, the examples of technologies that entered widespread use and were shown later to be inefficacious or unsafe, and the large numbers of inadequately assessed current and emerging technologies, improvements are critically needed in the information base regarding safety and efficacy and the processes for its generation.

Congress Needs the OTA

Science Debate.org | April 10, 2010

According to a blog post, “Congressional staffers need access to timely and top quality science advice on the issues before their Members.”

To achieve this, U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), a Science Debate co-chair, is working with the Union of Concerned Scientists(UCS)  to re-instate OTA.  UCS has written a letter from scientists ready for your signature.

Managing Radioactive Waste

New in the OTA Archive is the report, Managing Commercial High-Level Radioactive Waste Summary (April, 1982).  This summary was not included in the OTA Legacy CD that was released when OTA closed.  Publishing a “summary” before its longer “report” was unusual for OTA. This shorter format  gave OTA the ability to provide information for legislative processes that were outrunning the completion of a lengthier report.

In 1978, the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee asked OTA to study ocean disposal of nuclear waste.   In 1979, several Senate and House Committees asked that OTA expand its study to include all modes of disposal of high-level radioactive waste.   At that time, comprehensive high-level waste management legislation introduced in both Houses started a round of hearings and debates that spanned nearly four years

OTA’s Congressional Board (TAB) at that time included several members who were dealing with radioactive waste issues in their committees: Representatives Dingell, Udall, and George Brown. At their request, TAB asked OTA not just to summarize the technical information, but to provide an understanding of how pieces of the issue fit together and to contribute toward a resolution of the problem.

Requests from Congress for interim information from OTA began as early as 1979 when the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works asked for an analysis of issues associated with the interim storage of spent fuel. OTA responded with a detailed letter, the first of many documents (legislative analyses, staff papers, testimony, etc.) that OTA contributed to the development of comprehensive nuclear waste legislation.  The final report was deferred while OTA provided highly-focused inputs to the legislative process as the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) evolved, according to the project director, Thomas Cotton.

The 1982 Summary was unusual for OTA in another way.  It presented only one set of policy options rather than the range of options usually found in OTA reports. According to the Summary:

In conducting the study, OTA analyzed a wide range of views-from
the technical community, Federal agencies, the nuclear industry, the environmental community, State and local officials, and the lay public. As a result of that effort, OTA identified the basic elements of an integrated high-level radioactive waste management policy that responds to the key concerns of the major affected parties. For that reason, we believe it could form the basis for the consensus needed to break the stalemate on waste disposal.

OTA presented the findings of the study October, 1981, in testimony before the committees sponsoring the draft legislation – the Energy and Natural Resources and the Environment and Public Works Committees in the Senate and the Science and Technology Committee in the House.  The Summary was issued in April, 1982, at the time of the floor debates on Senate’s bill.  According to the 1982 Summary:

OTA’s fundamental finding is that, if history is not to repeat itself over and over again, and the stalemate on nuclear waste is not to continue, a comprehensive policy is needed that commands the support and addresses the concerns of all major interested parties, makes a formal Federal commitment to developing several disposal facilities according to a firm and conservative schedule, and guarantees the financial and managerial resources required to meet that commitment.

With passage of NWPA, OTA reviewed the draft of the full report and decided to update it to reflect the passage of the Act and new technical information.  The implementation of NWPA became the focus of the final report, which was published in 1985 as Managing the Nations Commercial High-Level Radioactive Waste (with its own summary).