Restoring the Office of Technology Assessment

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Apologies for my disappearance, folks...Sheril did a great job in my absence, and I enjoyed being Obi-Wan for a day. Although it wasn't exactly like battling with lightsabers: I spent the week largely hunkered down in hotel rooms, preparing talks. Especially on my 30th birthday, and surrounded by top scholars at Cornell who'd been asked to critique my arguments, I wanted to make a good showing.

Video of that September 20th event, which I thought went quite well, whenever I can find it.

In the meantime, though, I want to direct your attention to something that Mark has been blogging about at Denialism: The urgent need to revive the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, a world-renowned scientific advisory body that the Gingrich Republicans did away with in a stunning act of self-lobotomy in 1995. [I had a whole chapter about this subject in Republican War, and it was in turn excerpted/adapted in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (PDF).]

Anyways, with Democrats in control of Congress, I'm starting to get puzzled as to why we haven't seen more action on the OTA front. I've heard chatter suggesting that the Dems don't want the office to be seen as coming back in a partisan way--lest it just get killed in a partisan way again. Hmmm.

Anyway, if Mark is gonna blog about this now and try to stir things up, I've got his back....and in the meantime, click the book cover image for the definitive work on OTA, Bruce Bimber's The Politics of Expertise in Congress.

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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…
Chris Mooney has been nice enough to help promote our effort, and points us to some more helpful information about the Office of Technology Assessment. Now would be a good time to go over what the OTA did, how it was set up, and why I think it would be rather easy to set it up again as a non-…
The archived reports of the OTA are on a new site hosted by the Federation of American Scientists. You may remember that we're big fans of the OTA as we feel that scientific assessment of government policy and guidance of legislation is key to having an efficacious, informed congress. In our…
In "The Republican War on Science" Chris Mooney referred to the Newt Gingrich-led Congress' decision to eliminate the Office of Technology Assessment as "a stunning act of self-lobotomy." If anything, he was lowballing the effects. For those of you who aren't familiar with this agency (and don't…

Actually - I take back the previous post - your Bulletin of Atomic Scientists .pdf linked above has a couple of paragraphs that I think explain this. If I understood correctly, the CRS RSI works directly and specifically for Congress and is geared towards gathering quick collections of information with minimal analyses for congresspeople (and nobody else), while the National Academy of Science doesn't work for Congress at all and generally produces much more drawn-out studies with policy recommendations. Therefore OTA is (or should be) in the middle, producing mid-size reports with analyses for congresspeople (and American citizens) with minimal policy recommendations...right?

SMC,
You're on the mark, but there's more to it than that.

First, not sure why NAS can't work for Congress. But it's not the creature of Congress. There's no ownership there.

OTA did studies deliberately designed for policymakers, so as to be useful to them--and framed its answers in that way. That's one thing that made it unique. NAS reports often take strong stands; OTA would, rather, give options for decision-makers. It's in many ways a different mode of analysis.

I worked for the National Academies for a few years. Many of its studies are sponsored by Congress. This requires statutory authority for a contract, and the relevant appropriation, often negotiated through the agency that sponsors the report.

For example, the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report was started through Congressional action (Senators Bingaman and Lieberman). Another example, a study on innovation was authorized by the recently passed America COMPETES Act - part of the American Competitiveness Initiative. So assuming the budget is commensurate with the authorization, the National Academies will conduct such a study as outlined in the legislation.

By David Bruggeman (not verified) on 24 Sep 2007 #permalink