The Much-Needed and Sane Congressional Office That Gingrich Killed Off and We Need Back

Our technological choices are becoming ever more complex. Don't you think our Senators and Representatives need some nonpartisan help?

Office of Technology Assessment/Princeton University

On October 13, 1972, in an act of bipartisanship and scientific literacy that we would be shocked to see come out of Congress today, the Technology Assessment Act was put into law. This act created the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an organization responsible for providing Congress with authoritative and unbiased reports on a wide range of present and emerging issues in science and technology.

When the OTA was established we were rocketing into -- well, space, but also into -- an age of ubiquitous, pervasive, fast-growing, and complex technologies that simultaneously promised us great benefits and great risks.

The Cold War brought on a persistent panic over national security. Information technologies were reshaping the way that people connected and interacted. And 10 years earlier Silent Spring, the book that kickstarted the environmental movement, helped sensitize the public to hazards surrounding pollution, pesticides, and general technological control over nature.

All of this (and more) made obvious the inextricable coupling between policy and science. As such, Congress recognized that it could not afford to wander blindly forward without an organization that would bridge technical expertise and political decision-making.

Yet, capture by a particular political party posed a real threat to the OTA's success and authority. To prevent this from happening, it was overseen by the "Technology Assessment Board," which was made up of 13 total members: a non-voting director, six senators (three each from the minority and majority party), and six representatives (three each again).

In addition, OTA was known to provide a range of policy options in its reports, but without advocating for a specific one. This allowed policy-makers in Congress to weigh the choices themselves, and helped add to the OTA's non-partisan persona.

Throughout its existence it released over 750 studies on an impressive range of topics like environmental (acid rain, climate change, and resource use), national security (technology transfer to China and bioterrorism), health (disease and medical-waste management), and social issues (workplace automation and how technology affects certain social groups).

However, regardless of the OTA's pragmatic style, attention to societal impact, and the international praise lauded on its thorough and accessible reports, the 1980 book Fat City: How Washington Waste Your Taxes argued that the OTA was redundant and unnecessary. This signaled the beginning of its long, politically-charged dirge.

More political unease followed when the OTA released a controversial 1984 report that all but called one of President Reagan's pet projects -- the space-based missile system, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) -- a wishful fantasy. This report was followed by two additional studies, released in 1985 and 1988, that were even more in-depth and just as damning. The 1988 report noted that the SDI had a noticeable possibility of ending up as a "catastrophic failure."

All of this lead up to the OTA's final death knell in 1995 as it was placed on the Gingrich Republican's altar of slashed budgets. In a 2005 article from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists titled "Requiem for an Office" [PDF], Chris Mooney describes how defunding the OTA was as much a political performance as it was a way of making room for new, ideology-friendly science advisory roles:

In OTA's absence, however, the new Republican majority could freely call upon its own favorable scientific "experts" and rely upon more questionable and self-interested analyses prepared by lobbyists, think tanks, and interest groups. A 2001 comment by Gingrich, explaining the reason OTA was killed, pretty much said it all: "We constantly found scientists who thought what they were saying was not correct."

While the OTA has been defunded for 17 years there has been vocal support by many prominent scholars and politicians to either re-fund it or establish a similar method of technology assessment. For example, Representative Rush Holt wrote an op-ed in Wired a few years ago that argued for "restoring a once robust science resource to its rightful place." And the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars released a 2010 report titled "Reinventing Technology Assessment: A 21st-Century Model" that drew on lessons learned from the OTA as jump-off point for creating a contemporary method of assessment.

David H. Guston, a leading scholar on the OTA and co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes as well as Director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society, told me that the ideas behind it still hold relevance today for two main reasons.

"The first, to provide the Congress with an analytical capacity in issues of science and technology, is evergreen" because the legislative branch is often at a disadvantage in its possession of technical expertise and advice when compared to the executive branch. The OTA served as way of filling this void.

Guston described the second reason as the ability to, "look toward and even over the horizon on scientific and technical issues and help decision makers understand and make policies for emerging technologies like synthetic biology or military drones, or infrastructural challenges like climate adaptation, or resource management issues like fisheries, is perhaps even more important than it was when OTA was chartered 40 years ago, because of the vast scope and increasing pace of knowledge production and technological change."

The OTA holds an important place in history and as technology becomes increasingly complex, socially embedded, and wrapped up in policy we should look to it for lessons about how to apply these techniques in the present and future.

This isn't to say that the OTA was perfect, Guston was sure to caution that we do not need to "recreate OTA exactly as it was, and in fact doing so would probably be a mistake." Instead, he pointed to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and their efforts to develop a capacity for technology assessment.

There are certain characteristics that renewed efforts for technology assessment should take into account and build into their organizations. For instance, Guston argues that the OTA "was never very good at getting publics engaged in technology assessment -- and GAO may not be either -- but the state-of-the-art in technology assessment that has developed since OTA's demise has included a distinctly participatory element to it. And over time, OTA's attention to the far horizon diminished in favor of a more traditional policy analytic approach focused on current issues, so any new organization should also take advantage of current developments in foresight research -- from new social networking tools for expert elicitation to scenario development techniques -- to represent the anticipatory aspects of technology assessment more rigorously in its approach."

While the OTA's dismantling 17 years ago was an unfortunate blow to the efforts of understanding and shaping the effects of complex science and technology, for many the relevance and memory of this project hasn't died.