So I was thinking. It isn’t really enough to merely react constantly to anti-scientific behavior which seems to permeate the media, the interwebs, and policy discussions on Capitol Hill these days.

It used to be, for about 20 years (from 1974 to 1995), there was an office on the Hill, named the Office of Technology Assessment, which worked for the legislative branch and provided non-partisan scientific reports relevant to policy discussions. It was a critical office, one that through thorough and complete analysis of the scientific literature gave politicians common facts from which to decide policy debates. In 1994, with the new Republican congress, the office was eliminated for the sake of budget cuts, but the cost in terms of damage to the quality of scientific debate on policy has been incalculable. Chris Mooney described it as Congress engaging in “a stunning act of self-lobotomy” in his book the Republican War on Science (RWOS at Amazon).

The fact of the matter is that our government is currently operating without any real scientific analysis of policy. Any member can introduce whatever set of facts they want, by employing some crank think tank to cherry-pick the scientific literature to suit any ideological agenda. This is truly should be a non-partisan issue. Everybody should want the government to be operating from one set of facts, ideally facts investigated by an independent body within the congress that is fiercely non-partisan, to set the bounds of legitimate debate. Everybody should want policy and policy debates to be based upon sound scientific ground. Everybody should want evidence-based government.

For another good article on the OTA, and why it should be brought back I can recommend this one.

In the meantime, what can you do? Well, if you’re a Kossack, go write a diary or three on the topic. If you’re a LGFer, write comments about it there. If you have a blog, write a post about it. Here is a list of emails for senators and congressmen, write yours and suggest that the OTA be re-funded and allowed to scientifically investigate sound policy once more. Link back here so that I can see who is interested in pursuing this, and whether or not this is a popular idea.

It’s not enough to bitch about anti-science when it happens, the root of our problems stems from a government which no longer has a sound, non-partisan scientific body to guide debate. Let’s ask congress to re-insert their brain, and refund the OTA.


Links so far:
PZ at Pharyngula
John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts
Major Geek’s LiveJournal
Ordinary Girl at Tales of an Ordinary Girl
John Pieret at Thoughts in a Haystack
Dave Bruggeman at Prometheus writing a month ago
Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub
Alex at the Yorkshire Ranter
Measured Against Reality
La Pobre Habradora at Second Innocence
Dan at Migrations
Mike Dunford at Questionable Authority – with links to presidential campaigns!
Jeremy Elton Jacquot at TreeHugger
Epicanis at the Big Room
Blue Sky Mining
Brian Thomas at Carbon-Based
Bora at Blog Around the Clock
suddenly south at the Cucking Stool
Geoff Davis at PhDs.org Engineering and Science Blog
Amanda at Enviroblog
Kate at Anterior Commissure
Soberish
Chris Mooney at the Intersection
Paul Hutchinson at Paul Hutchinson’s Blog
Kent at Uncommon Ground
DOF at Decrepit Old Fool

Comments

  1. #1 Ted
    September 14, 2007

    The market and lobbyists should decide what is good science worthy of public policy funding. No?

    This type of organization would duplicate the quality work being done by the private sector and presented to members of Congress by lobbyists.

    1995? I wonder if demise of OTA had something to do with the changing winds after the contract on America. Maybe it was a priority to kill the bitch dead back in the day.

  2. #2 Steve Higgins
    September 14, 2007

    You know.. I keep reading this as bring back OTB?! I’m pretty sure Off track betting isn’t going anywhere soon ;)

  3. #3 Ankh
    September 14, 2007

    There’s an interesting book out on how a new OTA might work.

    “Science and Technology Advice for Congress”
    M. Granger Morgan and Jon M. Peha, editors
    RFF Press, 236 p.
    hardcover ISBN 1-891853-75-9 (US$65.00)
    paperback ISBN 1-891853-74-0 (US$26.95)

    The elimination of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995 came during a storm of budget cutting and partisan conflict. Operationally, it left Congress without an institutional arrangement to bring expert scientific and technological advice into the process of legislative decisionmaking. This deficiency has become increasingly critical, as more and more of the decisions faced by Congress and society require judgments based on highly specialized technical information.

    Offering perspectives from scholars and scientists with diverse academic backgrounds and extensive experience within the policy process, Science and Technology Advice for Congress breaks from the politics of the OTA and its contentious aftermath. Granger Morgan and Jon Peha begin with an overview of the use of technical information in framing policy issues, crafting legislation, and the overall process of governing. They note how, as nonexperts, legislators must make decisions in the face of scientific uncertainty and competing scientific claims from stakeholders. The contributors continue with a discussion of why OTA was created. They draw lessons from OTA’s demise, and compare the use of science and technological information in Europe with the United States.

    The second part of the book responds to requests from congressional leaders for practical solutions. Among the options discussed are expanded functions within existing agencies such as the General Accounting or Congressional Budget Offices; an independent, NGO- administrated analysis group; and a dedicated successor to OTA within Congress. The models emphasize flexibility–and the need to make political feasibility a core component of design.

  4. #4 Ordinary Girl
    September 14, 2007

    I posted about it on my blog here.

  5. #5 David Bruggeman
    September 14, 2007

    Rep. Rush Holt has been pushing this for most of his tenure in Congress. Recreating the OTA was likely first advanced about 6 months after it was shuttered. The idea has not gotten off the ground, and the House Science Committee hearing on this topic last fall suggests the political will isn’t there. My observations as to why:

    - Some don’t see the need. A small percentage literally don’t see the need for that kind of analysis, other think that the National Academies, or private consultants, could provide the same service.

    - OTA was insufficiently timely. This is a bit of a red herring, but the argument is advanced that reports were rarely done fast enough for the Congressional client.

    The more likely scenario for a ‘renewed OTA’ is for some similar capacity to be grown within the Government Accountability Office. They’ve tried to grow this capacity for a while, as I posted about last month on Prometheus.

  6. #6 MarkH
    September 14, 2007

    That’s a good post on the topic David. I’ve noticed lots of people posting here and there on the topic over the last few months, and several articles over the years begging for it’s return, but no real concerted effort.

    One thing that I don’t think can be discounted is the importance of having the offices be within the legislative branch. Having scientists not just writing reports but regularly accessible to the members would be of great value. It was my understanding that the OTA wasn’t just a bunch of toilers in the basement, but people who cultivated relationships with the members and could be sought for routine advice beyond what was in the reports.

  7. #7 Ted
    September 14, 2007

    …and could be sought for routine advice beyond what was in the reports.

    If Edwards wins, I think I know which ScienceBlogger gets the nod as Imperial Wizard.

    But heck, couldn’t the legislative branch (or executive branch for that matter) just host ad-hoc mashups to get diversity of views and opinions. Which, of course, would inevitably lead to the requisite atheism, religion, cherry picking, denialism and namecalling.

    Re: Timeliness issue — The OTA was fundamentally pre-Web 1.0 and we’re already up to Web 2.0+. Why bring back an old bureaucracy when we’ve got all this interconnectedness and Gen-Y/Millenial zeitgeist vibe?

  8. #8 travc
    September 15, 2007

    This is a great topic… I for one have actually given some significant thought to trying to doing the sort of advisory work the OTA did. It is very important, and actually interesting stuff to do.

    However, I don’t actually see how the OTA (or any other non-partisan advisory capacity) could be built up again in today’s environment. Trying to staff a new office in the OMB or a new OTA would be a political nightmare I think. Even if the Dems in charge of the task were honest about staying non-partisan, the GOP would wail like banshees about every new hire since at this point objective scientific consensus (and competence) is incompatible with many of their deeply held views. The new office would be tarred as ‘liberal’ even before they gave any advice or wrote a single report. That would kill much of the point of it in the first place.

    A quick question as well. Why can’t the NAS fill this role? I don’t know much about how the NAS is actually structured and I’m actually really curious.

  9. #9 Scott
    September 15, 2007

    Be careful with the term “evidence based”. I’ve heard the term used to support things like homeopathy and aromatherapy. In this case, “evidence” means any “anecdotal evidence”. If someone claimed they were helped by it, then that’s “evidence based”.

    I’m not sure what you’d replace it with. I like “science based”, with all the (in my mind) positive baggage that “science” brings with it.

  10. #10 MarkH
    September 15, 2007

    A quick question as well. Why can’t the NAS fill this role? I don’t know much about how the NAS is actually structured and I’m actually really curious.

    I think the NAS is inadequate for the role. We need an office within the legislative branch so that scientists and legislators are working closely together. The NAS has been good for when someone needs a report commissioned, but doesn’t provide the kind of policy analysis that the OTA used to.

    It’s conceivable that the NAS could do something like this, but it’s current role is much more limited – more like an independent contractor.

    Be careful with the term “evidence based”. I’ve heard the term used to support things like homeopathy and aromatherapy. In this case, “evidence” means any “anecdotal evidence”. If someone claimed they were helped by it, then that’s “evidence based”.

    Hey, it’s not our fault alties steal our language. But that doesn’t mean we have to change it each time they do. It’s a scary day when “evidence-based” makes people think of quackery though.

  11. #11 Stuart Coleman
    September 15, 2007

    I’ve blogged about this here. This is a good idea and we should try to get as many people to contact their representatives as we can.

  12. #12 cajela
    September 15, 2007

    I would but I’m not American. I wish you the best of luck.

  13. #13 Ankh
    September 17, 2007

    A quick question as well. Why can’t the NAS fill this role? I don’t know much about how the NAS is actually structured and I’m actually really curious.

    I think the NAS is inadequate for the role. We need an office within the legislative branch so that scientists and legislators are working closely together. The NAS has been good for when someone needs a report commissioned, but doesn’t provide the kind of policy analysis that the OTA used to.

    It’s conceivable that the NAS could do something like this, but it’s current role is much more limited – more like an independent contractor.

    Exactly right. The NAS is outside the federal government and works for a number of branches of government–often on long-term issues, for example determining whether there’s a scientific consensus on a controversial issue. That’s a completely different function from the very focused analysis that OTA used to provide.

    The NAS and GAO scenarios are discussed in the Morgan and Peha book I mentioned above. There’s also a fascinating older book–sorry, I’m drawing a blank on the name–that looks at the creation of the OTA. Essentially, the OTA provides Congress with analysis of specific key policy items like the federal budget. Before the OTA, the Congress had to accept whatever analysis was provided by the President’s staff. Part of the impetus for creating the OTA was the revelation that the President’s budget was (gasp) misleading and even provided numbers that were wrong by orders of magnitude. Congress needed a specific, focused, dedicated organization providing policy analysis that was oriented toward their needs. In my view, neither the NAS nor the GAO does that at the pace or specificity required to replace to OTA. A closer analog might be the Congressional Research Service.

  14. #14 SMC
    September 17, 2007

    Okay, I’ve linked from here now. I’ll probably do another few posts on related topics in the near future, too.

    What IS, incidentally, the functional difference between what was the Office of Technology Assessment and the Congressional Research Service’s “Resources, Science, and Industry” group? (A question I ask in the post, because I’m really not sure…feel free to comment there on my blog as well. Yes, this IS also a sleazy attempt to invite more readers, I’ll admit it…)

  15. #15 Stephen
    September 18, 2007

    I’m convinced, I just fired off a letter to my representative, Jo Ann Davis. Next Jim Webb and John Warner.

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  17. #17 Jim Lippard
    September 15, 2009

    There’s a good case for bringing back the OTA in M. Granger Morgan’s “The U.S. Congress Needs Advice about Science and Technology” in the August 15, 2004 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, a journal of the American Chemical Society. Morgan’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences and engineering prof. at Carnegie Mellon.

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