The Scientific Activist

We Need to Bring Back the OTA

In discussions lamenting modern day political interference in science and the less-than-prominent role science plays in formulating policy, bringing back the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) is commonly offered as a key facet of any comprehensive solution. And, this is for good reason, as Gerald L. Epstein explains in a new article at Science Progress:

Over its history, OTA informed members of Congress and their staffs and helped shape legislation. But its reports played a far wider role. Since they explained complicated technical concepts to a non-technical audience, they were widely circulated, attracting considerable public attention. “The Office of Technology Assessment does some of the best writing on security-related technical issues in the United States,” said the journal Foreign Affairs. OTA has “produced hundreds of policy-related reports, and has developed a reputation for objective, non-partisan, and comprehensive assessments of public policy issues with highly technical aspects,” according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Critical review of OTA reports from both public and expert audiences amplified their message and validated their value and quality.

Unfortunately, the OTA was one of the first victims of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress and the ensuing Republican war on science. And, in the almost 14 years since it ceased operations, the need to consider science and technology in day-to-day policymaking has only grown. The good news, though, as Epstein explains, is that restarting the OTA should be legislatively very simple, in theory at least:

When the Republicans took control of both Houses of Congress in 1994, Congress voted not to fund OTA for the next fiscal year, and the agency ceased operations in September 1995. Yet it was not abolished. The Technology Assessment Act of 1972 remains on the books, so all it would take to restart OTA would be an appropriation. Whatever the reasons for OTA’s defunding during that contentious and volatile transition 15 years ago, it did not constitute a referendum on the agency’s overall value or competence.

There’s much more in the article, so give it a read. And, if you’re really interested, you can also find online archives of past OTA reports (along with additional material) at the Federation of American Scientists and Princeton University.

One item that was not mentioned in the article–but bears mentioning here–is that before being defunded, the annual budget of the OTA was $21.9 million. To put this number into context, this was only about one seven-hundredth of one percent of the US federal budget at the time. In fact, this is such a minuscule amount of money on the scale of a federal budget (think $700 billion bailouts here), that it’s hard to even find a reasonable analogy. For example, the OTA’s budget would be similar in size to that of the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services. You really have to get that small and specific (and obscure) before you even begin to approach a magnitude where you can draw comparisons.

Basically, considering the persuasive case in favor of reinstating the OTA–and the incredibly small amount of money such an endeavor would require–it’s difficult to understand why this hasn’t happened already.


Hat tip to Scientists and Engineers for America