Bring back the OTA

Mark Hoofnagle is urging everyone to get behind a simple, non-partisan goal that would greatly benefit science policy: bring back the Office of Technology Assessment.

It used to be, for about 30 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.

Spread the word. Build a drumbeat of support for this idea in the blogs. Write to your congresspeople. Write op-eds for your newspaper. It’s a simple idea that everyone should agree on: we want our government to be well-informed and to be able to make decisions based on evidence, and having an advisory office dedicated to providing information from the scientific community would be a real boon.


  1. #1 Bad Albert
    September 14, 2007

    Good idea but what’s to stop some president from making it partisan or worse, faith-based?

  2. #2 tsg
    September 14, 2007

    Unfortunately it is completely at odds with the goals of the government.

  3. #3 Caucasian Jesus
    September 14, 2007

    Under control of Bush:

    Executive branch: check
    Judicial branch: largely check
    Legislative branch: lethargic… check

    Like Bad Albert said, this would just become another form of deception and manipulation.

  4. #4 TheBrummell
    September 14, 2007

    As a citizen of a place that’s not the USA, I don’t normally spend much time thinking about Yanqui politics. But, as his bleached holiness said:

    Under control of Bush:

    Executive branch: check
    Judicial branch: largely check
    Legislative branch: lethargic… check

    Like Bad Albert said, this would just become another form of deception and manipulation.

    Could a Democrat include in their campaign something like “if you elect me, I promise to bring back the OTA”? That would at least bring the subject to the fore, and simultaneously impose a delay on any presidential meddling (I hope).

  5. #5 Wicked Lad
    September 14, 2007

    I think it’s worthwhile. I’ve taken the suggestion and written my representatives.

    Regarding Bad Albert’s and Caucasian Jesus’s cynicism, we really can have relatively independent agencies in the US government, even these days. Consider the GAO.

  6. #6 Ed Darrell
    September 14, 2007

    What stops OTA from becoming a mouthpiece for the president is the fact that it’s an agency of the Congress. GAO is another agency of Congress. So is the Library of Congress, and the GPO. Those four agencies have a long legacy of non-partisan, beneficial service to the nation in excess of the costs of the agencies.

    OTA always did outstanding work. Killing it was a profound act of political homicide (what’s the Greek for killing an agncy, or better, Greek for killing knowledge and oracles?).

    OTA studies continue to be current — they were that good, and they saw that far ahead. Fortunately, the studies are archived at Princeton U:

    Bring it back, yes!

  7. #7 Ed Darrell
    September 14, 2007

    Let’s be clear: OTA was not sacrificed to budget cuts. It was killed because its work supported issues that Newt Gingrich’s Congress (and the Contract on America) did not support. It was in this same Congressional Budget Night of the Long Knives that the Superconducting Supercollider was killed — not because it was a bad idea, but because it was in Texas, a legacy to the power of ousted House Speaker Jim Wright.

    Prior to this partisan rampage against good government, OTA enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Its studies were regarded as highly credible — because they were.

    Budget decision? That’s the nice, 8th grade U.S. history version. If it placates conservatives and lets us bring OTA back, I’ll keep quiet about it. Resurrection in this case is more important by far than the actual murder. Think of the influence such an agency would have had on the debate on climate change, or intelligence gathering, or “weapons of mass destruction.” If we had just had the facts, and trusted them . . .

  8. #8 Charley
    September 14, 2007

    Good thought, PZ. I’d like to write my Rep., Vern Ehlers, who is on the House Science & Technology Committee, but I don’t know much about this topic. If any of you golden-tongued bloggers would care to whip up a nice paragraph or two for me, I’d be happy to appropriate it for my message.

    He has a background in Physics research and teaching. He is a Republican and a Christian, but bright nonetheless :). I’ve heard him say he disagrees with Mooney, but I don’t know why. I think the message should be polite, positive and constructive in tone.

    Any takers? Otherwise I’ll muddle through.

  9. #9 stogoe
    September 14, 2007

    (what’s the Greek for killing an agncy, or better, Greek for killing knowledge and oracles?).


  10. #10 Alan
    September 14, 2007

    I know very little about this topic, but I was under the impression that Newt Gingrich was one of the few Republicans who overtly supported good science and good science education. Granted, he’s had fair share of doubletalk moments and wacky ideas, but in general it seems unlikely that he would have actively sought to remove the OTA.

  11. #11 Xerxes1729
    September 14, 2007

    Homicide, regicide, etc. are all derived from Latin, not Greek. Since science is also from a Latin root meaning knowledge, I would propose scienticide. Or perhaps prudenticide, if you want to use a word meaning wisdom.

  12. #12 William
    September 14, 2007

    I like the idea — anything that advances respect for truth in government gets my support — but let me ask: how would the work done by the OTA be distinguished from the advisory role played currently by the National Academy of Science?

  13. #13 markH
    September 14, 2007

    Thanks PZ, you’re the wind beneath my wings.

  14. #14 Scotty B
    September 14, 2007

    What, no petition? 😉

  15. #15 Callandor
    September 14, 2007

    “I know very little about this topic, but I was under the impression that Newt Gingrich was one of the few Republicans who overtly supported good science and good science education.”

    Newt Gingrich is a man who loves science and is quite knowledgable about many topics. That’s the root problem with him, surprisingly. He knew he was knowledgable, so he felt anyone could do the same, hence the need for an office to do this was redundant and a waste of money. Congress people could simply be elected, and since Newt was so smart, they would be so smart. As you can see, that’s way wrong.

    But you can’t also get beyond the fact that while Newt may love science and be very well informed, he’s also a power-hungry man who knows when things can challenge his power or be inconveniences. That’s specifically why saying the office was cut for “budget” reasons is not right. The budget per year on the office was something like 20-25 (maybe 30 at most) million dollars. Million, not billion. That’s miniscule in this government.

    With the office gone, the facts changed from bipartisan facts that were obvious and reality based to ones where people could essentially claim to be their own experts and bring anything they wanted right out of their ass, or put up experts that were nothing but extremist and far-away nutcases. Much more palatable to political desires when you can do that….

  16. #16 Ed Darrell
    September 14, 2007

    How was OTA distinguished from the National Academy of Sciences? There were several differences:

    NAS writes for scientists and the general public. They deal with all of science, every year; they do basic research. In contrast, OTA wrote to inform Congress on the information needed to make good decisions on specific issues. They dealt only with the hot issues, now.

    NAS looks down the road, 20, maybe 30 years, to see what research needs might be. OTA looked at the structures of policy, to see what policies were needed to foster good science now, to deal with issues now, with an eye to what would be good in the future, but with a focus on what needs to be done now.

    NAS is composed of scientists, with other jobs, who do basic research in their areas that may or may not be informative to the decisions Congress needs to make. OTA was composed of scientists who analyzed basic research to see what it revealed that was of use to Congressmen in making policy to keep the nation safe and secure, healthy, well-educated, well-fed, and wealthy.

    NAS asks, “what would we like to know?” OTA asked, “To make the right decision on issue X, what do we need to know, where is that research, and what does it say about what we should do now?”

  17. #17 William
    September 14, 2007

    Thanks for the clarification, Ed. I feel more comfortable supporting the suggestion now.

  18. #18 Jon H
    September 14, 2007


    To be safe, don’t push for this until a Democrat is in the White House.

    If the OTA was brought back now, Bush would probably find a way to staff it with creationists and climate change skeptics.

  19. #19 octopod
    September 15, 2007

    Well, it’s under the control of Congress, not the President, and Congress is currently actually Democratic, if only lethargically so. The President shouldn’t have any say in it.

  20. #20 Darlene
    April 6, 2009

    Now that’s there renewed interest (and a formal request from Congressman Holt to the appropriations subcommittee) to reopen the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, thought your readers might like to sign the online petition to support the reopening of the OTA.

    All are welcome to join the Facebook group discussing this issue now:


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