Communicating Science To Congress â The Office of Technology Assessment Got It Right (Sort Of)

by Philip H.

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In my last post for the Intersection, I mentioned the Office of Technology Assessment and its place in the history of communicating science to Congress. I also asked the questions as to whether, in the increasingly complex Information Age, the OTA needs to be revived or do we need to have some other organization to accomplish the same mission.

Well, thanks to Darlene at the Science Cheerleader, I'm happy to report that OTA's archive of reports and analyses is available for free on-line. Nate's site (courtesy of the Federation of American Scientists) is really cool for us science policy junkies, and it's an easy portal to the work OTA did. I started looking it over, because if we're going to debate what kind of science advisory body congress needs, we should look at what they had and gave up under a Republican majority.

First, it's obvious from the many titles that exist in this archive that OTA did a lot of good work trying to bring Congress up to date on really important issues. It is also apparent that many of the issues we're debating today aren't as new as one might think.

One of the reports I read was titled "Replacing gasoline: alternative fuels for light duty vehicles." Written in 1990, the 122 page analysis of such alternative fuels choices as ethanol (including both corn-derived, and lignocellulosic), methanol, electricity and hydrogen (in fuel cells) reads eerily like some thing you might pick up off the shelf today at a progressive think tank. If you don't have time to run through the whole thing, the 22 page executive summary does really good job of wrapping up the issues.

The report says we need alternative fuels due to unhealthy levels of ozone, the growing amount of imported petroleum and its relationship to national security, and rising unhealthy CO2 levels and green-house gas emissions. According to OTA, not only will switching to these alternative fuels increase our energy security (particularly hydrogen, electric vehicles, and lignocellulosic ethanol), but they will also have long term benefits in the reduction of global warming. The number one challenge we face - the need for alternative fuels delivery infrastructure in the U.S. Does any of this sound familiar to anyone?

Sadly, the report is 122 pages long, and even the most interested Congressional staffer isn't going to wade through that. Most won't even have the time to make it through the 22 page executive summary. If anything, the OTA reports suffered from being too long and too in-depth. If you look at the archive, it has 4 other reports on climate change written between 1991 and 1994, including a two volume set looking at Preparing for an Uncertain Climate! These last two look good at first, and I hope to use them for future writing. Sadly at 365 and 389 pages respectively, it will be a while before I can analyze them in terms of today's climate change.

So, I think those of us interested in increasing the use of science in national policy need to take a lesson here. If, indeed we succeed in getting an OTA successor back on Capitol Hill, we need to make sure the products produced will be of use to Congress. That means the staff have to have both scientific expertise, and good writing skills. This OTA 2.0 needs good technical editors, and it probably also needs communications experts who can package the message into small chunks useful to elected officials. Otherwise, OTA 2.0 will end up like OTA 1.0 - lots of good reports that few pay attention to because they were too long. That would be a shame - as it looks like the OTA was ahead of its time in trying to steer national policy toward some very important issues.

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