Congress’s Science Agency Prepares to Close Its Doors

By Warren E. Leary
New York Times
September 24, 1995
p. 26

WASHINGTON, Sept. 21–After more than 20 years of advising lawmakers on the most complex scientific and technical issues, a small Congressional agency will soon cease to exist, but it is vigorously pursuing its mission to the last.

The agency, the Office of Technology Assessment, widely praised for offering impartial advice and analysis to the senators and representatives who must make decisions on technical issues in which they have little expertise, will close on Sept. 30.

Although little known to the public, the agency has had a presence and influence in many of the great scientific debates on Capitol Hill. As Congressmen passed laws and budgets dealing with issues like medical research, climate change, the space program, genetic engineering, telecommunications policy and defense against nuclear weapons, studies by the agency have played pivotal roles.

The agency, one of Congress’s smallest with a $22 million annual budget and fewer than 200 employees, fell victim to budget cutting by the Republican majority and, its supporters say, shortsightedness about its value in providing unbiased, understandable advice on complex issues.

Some of the 130 professionals on the agency’s staff have already left for other jobs, but most have stayed on and are working to the end to finish studies. Even as they empty desks, pack boxes and circulate resumes, staff members working in offices a few blocks from the Capitol are rushing to complete and distribute as many studies as possible before the deadline.

“We are going to put out 60 to 65 reports this year, compared to the 50 or so we normally release,” said Dr. Roger C. Herdman, a doctor who has served as director of the agency since 1993. “It’s really a point of pride for many of the people here to finish what they’ve started and get the reports to the people who asked for them.”

Some studies, which normally take 18 months to 2 years to complete and can be hundreds of pages long, will be truncated because of the deadline, he said. Because there is no time to have some printed, he said, they will be distributed in photocopied versions or made available electronically on the Internet.

Several big studies were not far enough along to be finished, Dr. Herdman said, including reports on the role of the United States in United Nations peacekeeping operations and how to protect against weapons of mass destruction that fall into the hands of third parties like terrorists or small nations that do not have the means to build such arms.

Critics of the agency, including Representative Robert S. Walker, the Pennsylvania Republican who heads the House Science Committee, said that in the past, the agency had taken so long to do its comprehensive studies that they were released after legislation they could influence had been written. Dr. Herdman of the agency admitted that reports sometimes lagged behind legislation, but said agency researchers, when asked, issued shorter interim reports or testified at legislative hearings on the results of the studies in progress.

There are a number of theories about why the agency, which had been highly praised in Government, academic and scientific circles for its analyses and impartiality, lost out in the new effort of Congress to cut the size of its own budget. While some critics said the agency could be cut because its research duplicated work done by other public and private organizations, others said it had become vulnerable because of the way it was set up in 1972 to maintain its political neutrality.

The agency was established during the Nixon Administration to give Congress technical expertise equal to that available to the executive branch through its many departments and agencies.

Sometimes referred to as the think tank for Congress, the agency is overseen by a board with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats and an even division between senators and representatives. To keep the agency from being overwhelmed with requests for studies and to insure quality, only the board or committee chairmen and ranking members of the minority party could request work. And the agency was prohibited from recommending a single policy after a study, being required instead to lay out different policy options and projecting what the consequences of each might be.
During floor debates, the agency’s reports were often quoted by both sides of an issue, supporters say, indicating that the agency was doing its job of supplying factual material to elevate the discussion.

Because the agency tried to be so neutral and because it was insulated from direct contact with most members, proponents say, new committee chairmen and members of Congress brought into power with last year’s Republican takeover had little or no knowledge or appreciation of the agency. Without visibility and champions, an agency can quickly find itself in trouble.

“If you belong to everyone, you belong to no one,” said Dr. John H. Gibbons, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Dr. Gibbons, who headed the technology office for 14 years before becoming President Clinton’s science adviser in 1993, said the demise of the agency after it had proved its effectiveness reflected an anti-intellectual and anti-science mentality among some members of Congress who were not interested in looking at issues factually.

“Closing our eyes to issues is a very poor way to plan for our future,” Dr. Gibbons said.
Senator Connie Mack, a Florida Republican who helped to lead the effort to kill the agency, and other opponents said its role could be filled by other Congressional fact-finding agencies, like the General Accounting Office, and Congressional Research Service, or private organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences.
But Representative Amo Houghton, a Republican whose New York district includes Elmira, Jamestown and suburban Ithaca, said the information explosion was the problem, not the solution. Mr. Houghton, who would have been chairman of the agency’s board if it had survived, led the effort to save it. Obtaining unbiased information for making decisions has become harder, not easier, he said.

“O.T.A. acts as an impartial ‘honest broker'” Mr. Houghton said. “Members of Congress are deluged with advice from many quarters, but it is often tinged with the underlying bias and political agenda of the bearer.”

Mr. Houghton, who said he favored reducing Government and cutting costs, said some lawmakers are so anxious to cut down the size of Government that they were not being selective. This shortsightedness, he said, will hurt the nation’s ability to mobilize its resources in science and technology and to develop policies that create jobs and economic growth.

“We are cutting off one of the most important arms of Congress when we cut off unbiased knowledge about science and technology,” Mr. Houghton said.

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