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The Office of Technology Assessment: Bureaucratic Waste or Undervalued Resource?

by Nicole Gasparini, 2005-2006 GSA-USGS Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 16, no. 11 (November 2006)

For the past year, GSA and the U.S. Geological Survey have sponsored me as a science fellow to Congress. The Congressional Science Fellowship program is run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and places scientists from all backgrounds in congressional offices. Working as a congressional staffer has many perks, but as an AAAS congressional fellow, even more doors were open to me. Among my many "extras" were a private tour of the Pentagon, movie openings (the science type!), and a private tour of the U.S. Naval Observatory, including a view of Saturn through the 26-inch refracting telescope. I also had the privilege of attending a talk given by Newt Gingrich at the National Press Club on 20 July 2006.

Gingrich is probably best known for his term as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999. Before he was elected to Congress in 1978, he taught history at West Georgia College. At the Press Club, Gingrich talked about the rapid advancement of science and stressed the importance of education, referring to the failure of U.S. math and science education as "a greater threat than any conceivable conventional war." On this point, Gingrich and I see eye-to-eye. Gingrich is an amazing politician, and it was clear to me how he swept our country up in his 1994 "Contract for America," which gained the Republican party 54 seats (there are 435 total) in the U.S. House of Representatives and thereby the majority.

In his first year as Speaker of the House, Gingrich abolished the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The OTA was created in 1972 to provide Congress objective analyses of major public policy issues related to scientific and technological change. When asked why he shut down the OTA, Gingrich said the office was expensive to run and produced sub-par studies. Some articles, however, suggest that a 1985 OTA study questioning the feasibility of the United States' ballistic missile defense program, or "Star Wars," led to the demise of the OTA.

Regardless of the reason, Congress is now without a resource devoted specifically to understanding how scientific and technical matters affect policy. While Gingrich was in office, he said he did not need the OTA because he would speak directly with the top scientists working on an issue. This approach worries me. First of all, identifying "top scientists" is not always easy. Areas of science remain contentious in the policy arena, regardless of whether there is relative scientific consensus on the topic. Would Gingrich speak with scientists on both sides of a debated issue? And even if he did speak with different scientists on a topic, would this provide a fair representation? Are scientists even prepared to talk about the nuances of their field with a policy maker? I'm sure I would take the call if any member of Congress wanted to talk with me about geomorphology, but I'm not sure I could have communicated the policy aspects of my field effectively before this year.

Although Gingrich found a way to survive without the OTA, other members of Congress have felt the loss. A few days after Gingrich's Press Club talk, the House Science Committee held a hearing titled "Scientific and Technical Advice for Congress," which addressed the loss of the OTA. Although some opponents of the OTA argued that it was a partisan office, the chair of the Science Committee, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), stated that he was a strong defender of the OTA and that he had voted against defunding the office.

The first witness was Representative Rush Holt (D-N.J.). Holt is a Ph.D. physicist and a former AAAS Congressional Fellow. He has taken many steps to try to restore a scientific advisory office for Congress; in 2001 and 2003, he introduced similar bills to reestablish the OTA.

In general, in order for a freestanding piece of legislation to get a vote on the House floor, it must first pass through the committee of jurisdiction, which usually holds hearings on the legislation and then votes on the bill. Following a positive vote in committee, the bill is discharged and can be considered by the House. Ultimately, this leadership committee decides which bills will see the light of the House floor. Holt's bills have never even received a vote in committee, although both had bipartisan cosponsorship. (The lack of action on Holt's bills is not unusual; the vast majority of proposed legislation never makes it out of committee.)

During his testimony, Holt pointed out that there are already a number of resources for Congress, including the Congressional Research Service, the National Academy of Sciences, think tanks, and experts from a member's personal district. As Holt put it, "we do not suffer from a lack of information here on Capitol Hill, but from a lack of ability to glean the knowledge and to gauge the validity, credibility, and usefulness of the large amounts of information and advice received on a daily basis." Holt pointed out how many of the OTA reports, from over a decade ago, are still timely and pertinent, including reports like "Retiring old cars: Programs to save gasoline and reduce emissions," "Renewing our energy future," "Potential environmental impacts of bioenergy crop production," "Innovation and commercialization of emerging technologies," and "Testing in America's schools: Asking the right questions." Holt, the other witnesses, and many committee members echoed a common theme: Congress is getting a lot of information but not the information it needs.

Not all the committee members shared this sentiment, however. In the opinion of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), the OTA was always late and too expensive. Rohrabacher felt that outside consultants could produce a better product than the OTA, and by using consultants, Congress could "have more control." Rohrabacher also suggested that Congress call on university scientists to carry out studies similar to those conducted by the OTA.

In some sense, the National Research Council (NRC) already provides a link between university scientists and Congress. The NRC assembles groups of academy members and independent scientists to study issues at the request of Congress and the administration. However, another witness at the hearing, Peter Blair, executive director of the Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences at the NRC, pointed out that the focus of NRC committees is to deliver consensus-based advice on science and technology topics. The OTA served a different role. As Blair stated, "OTA project teams sought to analyze and articulate the consequences of alternative courses of action and elaborate on the context of a problem without coming to consensus recommendations on a specific course of action." Blair has a unique perspective on the issue; he previously served as OTA assistant director.

There is still no legislation in the House to restore the OTA. Rep. Holt offered a failed amendment to the 2005 appropriations bill that would have allocated $30 million to restore some of the capabilities of the OTA. To put this in perspective, the President's 2007 budget request totaled $2.7 trillion, which does not include the $120 billion of supplemental funds for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Currently, the Senate's version of the budget would provide a total of about $138 billion for federal research and development programs. In my mind, the question is whether $30 million is too much to spend for some assurance that our lawmakers will have a resource that can clearly communicate how the findings of scientific studies, many of which are federally funded, can be used to make sound policy decisions. Ultimately, our lawmakers, and indirectly, U.S. voters, will answer this question.

This manuscript is submitted for publication by Nicole Gasparini, 2005-2006 GSA-U.S. Geological Survey Congressional Science Fellow, with the understanding that the U.S. government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for governmental use. The one-year fellowship is supported by GSA and by the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, under Assistance Award No. 05HQGR0141. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the author and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. government. Gasparini can be reached at .