The Debate Over Assessing Technology

Business Week
April 8, 1972

Congress Wants To Set Up an Office To Evaluate the Impact of New Developments

Quietly making its way through Congress is a bill that would create an Office of Technology Assessment to determine for Congress the byproduct effects of new technology. Many businessmen and scientists are not even aware of the bill’s existence, and most of those who do know about it have no clear idea of what role the new office would play. But among these last there is an increasing fear that an OTA could have a sharp and negative impact on technological development in the U.S.–and on industry’s pocketbook.
The chances that Congress will approve the bill seem excellent. It has already passed the House, and the Senate is expected to approve its version in the next few weeks. There has been little controversy over it in either chamber. Many senators and representatives seem to feel that they need expert and unbiased advice before they approve programs that call for spending millions of dollars for technological advances that may have unknown side effects.
But outside Congress, there is growing skepticism that any formal organization can properly evaluate the impact of technological change on the environment, the economy, and society. Says Daniel E. Noble, retired vice-chairman of Motorola, Inc., and now head of the company’s Science Advisory Board: “If such an office is expected to anticipate the impact of science and engineering over the long term, this is absurd.” And William O. Baker, vice-president for research and patents at Bell Labs, says: “I don’t know where you’d start in the course of innovation to make technology assessments…. You could only be sure to restrain technical progress.”

Some of the fears expressed arise because it is still far from clear how a Congressionally established Office of Technology Assessment would operate. Arthur M. Bueche, General Electric’s vice-president for research and development, would not mind an office that functioned as “an information activity for members of Congress.” But he warns that if the OTA were to be set up as “a police activity, it would stifle innovation.” And Robert Anderson, president of North American Rockwell Corp., says he would “hate to see a super group” evolve.
Congress now gets a form of technology assessment from the National Research Council, but these studies usually do not attempt to explore the byproduct effects of any particular program. And some congressmen question the NRC’s impartiality because the council also works for the executive branch. For instance, Senator Thomas F. Eagleton (D.-Mo.) recently derided an NRC study–which concluded that the technology necessary to meet the 1976 standards for auto exhaust emissions is not currently available–as being the result of “a nice admiration society” between scientists and industry.
Former Congressman Emilio Q. Daddario of Connecticut, who led early efforts to establish a technology assessment office, says that the bitter and confused debate over the supersonic transport could have been avoided if Congress had had an OTA to help it. One key issue, he recalls, was the charge that SST engine emissions could cause skin cancer in humans by upsetting natural radiation filtering mechanisms in the atmosphere. But because the charge came from opponents of the SST among environmentalist groups, it lost much credibility. Similarly, arguments that overseas sales of the SST would help the balance of payments had little effect because they came from strong SST advocates in the Administration.

Those businessmen worried about the added costs to industry of technology assessment have the recent example of the study of the Alaska pipeline’s environmental impact to confirm their fears. The study delayed the start of construction for two years, and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. is expected to have to pay the $9 million it cost the Interior Dept. to make it.
But Joseph Coates, a program director of the National Science Foundation, thinks industry’s fears are unfounded. Says he: “We’re committing ourselves to spending enormous sums on technological projects, so we can’t afford to play the planning game by ear.”
Businessmen “might panic” over technology assessment and “take it to mean technology arrestment,” Coates says. “But stopping an already-committed project is the least likely consequence.” Technology assessment, he believes, “would steer an already-committed project to produce the least adverse consequence.”

House version
Though there has been little argument over the bill in Congress, it has gone through some changes in the last few months. The bill passed by the House in February is a watered-down version of the one reported out of the House subcommittee on science, research, and development. Representative John W. Davis (D.-Ga.), subcommittee chairman and chief sponsor of the bill, wanted a stronger and more independent OTA, with public representatives on its board and a director who could start assessments on his own and subpoena testimony and records.
This went too far for Representative Jack Brooks (D.-Tex.). Such an office, he says, “set up apart from the Congressional process and possibly working in opposition to the committees in Congress, could delay or jeopardize the improvement of information resources.” His amendment changed the OTA board to one made up solely of members of Congress with complete control over the director. It also eliminated the OTA’s subpoena powers and its authority to initiate assessments.
Under the House bill, the OTA’s 50 to 100 professional “assessors” would make their studies only at the request of Congressional committees. Their job would be to spot impacts of technology, establish “cause-and-effect relationships,” determine alternative technological methods of implementing programs, and estimate and compare the impacts of these alternatives.
In this form, OTA would be much like a joint Congressional committee, less innovative than the original office and subject to more political pressures. But the Senate may add some changes of its own. It may, for instance, decide to include an advisory panel of outside experts to assist the board.

Serving the public
There are some who doubt that an OTA will work the way Congress wants it to. Technology assessment is now an “in” concept, but, they point out, it is far from being a practical tool. Says Edward E. David, Jr., White House Science Adviser: “The assessment process is in a very primitive state.”
David claims that more research is needed if assessments are to be better than simple seat-of-the-pants judgments. But he agrees that “we must develop the techniques necessary for assuring the public that its concerns are being duly considered.”
Increasing public pressure for such assurance is part of the reason Congress wants its own independent advisers. Congress could place “more faith and trust” in OTA than it can in existing sources, which have “built-in biases and prejudices whether they be industry or government agencies,” says Robert N. Faiman, vice-provost at the University of New Hampshire, who testified in favor of the bill.

The right to assess
But to gain influence, the technology assessors would have to establish their credentials with the main committees of Congress, and most of the committees are likely to prove jealous of their power to assess legislation on their own. For instance, Sidney L. McFarland, staff director of the House Interior Committee, says: “I don’t foresee much interplay between our committee and an OTA. We already have highly qualified staff members who can analyze programs proposed by the agencies.”
And finding a staff that can make competent assessments may be difficult. At least half a dozen schools offer courses in technology assessment, but there is no generally accepted definition of a “technological assessor,” nor any agreement on whether he should be a systems analyst, an operations researcher, a physicist, or a sociologist. Says the NSF’s Coates: “It isn’t a question whether the field will be invaded by phonies. It already has been.”
Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences, is not so worried about such problems. “Technology assessments,” he says, “have been going on for quite a long time.” Regulatory agencies, such as the Food & Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Trade Commission, have been forced into assessments because of their mission, he points out. And the NSF itself is financing assessments of such diverse developments as offshore oil production, no-fault insurance, and cloud-seeding programs.
The House bill calls for using the NSF as a study contractor for the OTA. But this could be ruled out in the Senate bill. Some congressmen feel that OTA should have no close ties with executive branch agencies.
If the OTA bill passes, as seems likely, the Administration may have to sort out the science advisory groups in some 115 federal agencies and offices that now make technology assessments. Says Gabor Strasser, who spent two years at the White House Office of Science & Technology studying assessment procedures: “When an agency goes before Congress to justify spending for new technology, it will have to have answers for the OTA director.”

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