Help restore science to its rightful place

By Phil Plait | April 8, 2009 7:00 am

In 1995, the Republican Congress, led by Newt Gingrich, dismantled the Office of Technology Assessment, a bipartisan consultant to the government on matters scientific. For over two decades the OTA had provided extensive expert advice to the President and Congress, but was defunded and shut its doors… a sign of things to come.

In January 2009, when Barack Obama took the oath of office, he said, "We will restore science to its rightful place."

It’s time we held him to that. Blogger Darlene Cavalier met with Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) recently, and he will be pushing to reopen the OTA. In early May he will defend this act on the floor of the Capitol.

I cannot stress enough how important this is. The thread of science runs through a huge number of major decisions the President must make, from health care to the economy to biology (stem cell research) to the space program. Science Progress has more on why this must happen.

You can join the Facebook group for this, but more importantly, Darlene started an online petition to help us show our support for Representative Holt. It’s not binding, of course, but if we get a few thousand signatures it might help win enough hearts and minds.

I don’t ask you BABloggees for much, but I’m asking you for this. Join me, Darlene, Chris Mooney, and others. Read those links, and then if you feel you can, sign the petition. Let’s get science back in the government’s good graces… and vice-versa.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Politics, Science

Comments (46)

  1. Hear hear! A governing body of lawyers and businessmen could use a few scientists filling in the gaps.

  2. QP

    Might as well. What’s another few million tossed onto trillions in debt. Gingrich is actually a great fan of science and technology. I disagreed with him on this, but his reasons for defunding the OTA were not antiscience. I know this opinion fails the ideological purity tests many of you hold dear, but, well, who cares?

    And be honest. In this day of hyper partisanship, you think a newly formulated OTA would be unbiased? Really?

  3. anonymic

    Thanks for letting us know about this. =-)

  4. Mister Rose

    Don’t just sign the petition. Send a letter to your representative and both senators. If they get some letters, they might not be so quick to skip that debate.

  5. Todd W.

    @Mister Rose

    Don’t just sign the petition. Send a letter to your representative and both senators. If they get some letters, they might not be so quick to skip that debate.

    And if you do write a letter, mail it rather than use e-mail, and hand-write the envelope.

  6. RL

    Maybe Obama could appoint a NASA administrator soon, too.

  7. Paul Weaver

    Phil,

    Just saw this interesting tidbit on PhysOrg, thought you and your readership would be interested. The powers-that-be in Texas, not content with their attempts to remove references to evolution from their educational standards (which, of course, have great effects on the rest of the country due to their textbook purchasing power), have recently modified their science standards to remove references to the AGE OF THE UNIVERSE.

    That’s right – apparently it’s now incorrect, with all the scientific evidence currently available, to educate our children as to the actual age of the Universe.

    Can’t we just figure out some way to give Texas back to Mexico or something?

  8. IVAN3MAN

    Phil, is that petition for U.S. residents only, or what?

  9. I wouldn’t actually recommend spending your time signing that petition. Online petitions are pretty much only there to let people “do something” and feel good about it, they don’t have any actual impact on policy makers.

    Like others have said, if you want to make a difference on this, write a physical letter or make a phone call to your senators and representative.

  10. I have signed the petition, and I will consider writing my representative and senators.

    To an extent, I agree with QP. Any new Office of Technology Assessment will be as partisan as any other office currently established. That’s because currently the Republican party is run by anti-science religionists. To fill the OTA with pro-science figures would mean atheistic moderates or at least pro-science Democrats.

    However, I fear special interests will likely take hold there as they have elsewhere.

  11. Jeremy

    I can’t help but think that a letter to your Congressmen (or Congresswomen, as the case may be) would have a lot more impact than an easily rigged, broadly meaningless online petition.

  12. Quiet Desperation

    Send a letter to your representative and both senators.

    They don’t care. I tried *calling* a few times on various issues and got rude brushoffs from lower level flunkies. Yes, I was polite. They just don’t care.

    Would a new OTA accomplish anything? Would the politicians care what it said? Would it be politicized? Will it duplicate effort already being done elsewhere? Am I the only skeptic left who asks questions like this anymore? I’m not opposing the idea, just asking questions. I like the idea of the OTA, but, hey, just beihng a skeptic, you know?

  13. doofus

    @Paul
    “Can’t we just figure out some way to give Texas back to Mexico or something?”

    I’d rather we sell it than just give it away.

    And if it’s a matter of money, those involved in the drug trade seem to have plenty.

  14. Quiet Desperation

    Can’t we just figure out some way to give Texas back to Mexico or something?

    Throw away massive real estate because some idiots happen to live on it?

    We’d have to give away the whole Union if that were the criteria for offloading geographical assets. :-P

    Heck, the whole planet would have to be sold to aliens.

    upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/3e/Howmuchforjusttheplanet.jpg

  15. Yes, there are not now enough government agencies, we need more!

  16. “Hear hear! A governing body of lawyers and businessmen could use a few scientists filling in the gaps.”

    The OTA was governed by 12 members of Congress and there was and is legitimate concern over politicizing science through it. I’m not averse to a scientific advisory board for Congress, but I don’t agree that the OTA is the way to go. Just because something smell sciency doesn’t make it so.

  17. ccpetersen

    OTA was actually one that did some good. Gringrich may be a fan of science, but he’s a bigger fan of saving his own ass and kowtowing to political ideology. I can’t forget that he divorced his first wife while she was sick with cancer so he could marry somebody he’d been cheating on her with. A fine example for the country and if he’d do something like that, I don’t know why we’d trust his word on anything else.

  18. T_U_T

    Would a new OTA accomplish anything? Would the politicians care what it said? Would it be politicized? Will it duplicate effort already being done elsewhere? Am I the only skeptic left who asks questions like this anymore? I’m not opposing the idea, just asking questions. I like the idea of the OTA, but, hey, just beihng a skeptic, you know?

    If it works, the benefit will be truly astronomical. If it doesn’t there will be no cost.
    So there i no reason to be skeptical.

  19. Daffy

    “OTA was actually one that did some good. Gringrich may be a fan of science, but he’s a bigger fan of saving his own ass and kowtowing to political ideology. I can’t forget that he divorced his first wife while she was sick with cancer so he could marry somebody he’d been cheating on her with.”

    You’re not supposed to remember that.

  20. JT Lewis

    Thank you Phil and Darlene for your leadership on this issue. (A Science Cheerleader and a Bad Astromoner walk into a bar…..)

    OTA was that rare government agency that worked nearly exactly as envisioned. After you sign the petition, find your Senator
    http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm
    and Congress member
    https://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml

    and write them as well. Letters carry weight. There is momentum on this issue, now is the time to act.

  21. The last I heard, faxes are the best way to reach your congressperson. Emails and online petitions are too easily ignored, and letters are not allowed near the office buildings anymore since the Anthrax scare of ’01. I’ve heard this from people who work this sort of thing a lot, but don’t have a document saying so. A Google for “letters congress anthrax” showed that there’s been a recent incident involving a film crew sending letters mimicking those of ’01, and the article I read refers to ‘drastic changes’ in how Congress receives and inspects its mail since 2001.

    Something to consider…

    On the issue of OTA, I’m not against its re-formation except on the grounds of waste because I don’t expect much out of it.

  22. ccpetersen

    Republicans only ever eviscerate things that work for the majority of taxpayers. Hence the takedown of OTA by an otherwise science-interested GOPper.

  23. As an aside, Rush Holt is the only Congressman I know of who has a PhD in Physics. He’s one of only about three Congressmen with a PhD in any science field. He’s consistently been a good advocate of science in the House. I only wish I could vote for him.

  24. T_U_T

    email, letters, telephone, fax. All can be ignored if you don’t want to listen. All has to be ignored because no congressman can make anyone happy, so no matter what side he joins there will be a lot of angry letters from the other side. Too much to even read,

  25. Richard

    No no NO! This needs to go the other way. Get the state out of science!

  26. Cheyenne

    @John Weiss –

    Bill Foster is another congressman (D-IL) that has a PhD.

    He worked at Fermi before being elected.

  27. Benjamin

    These posts are the ones that put me off from many mainstream skeptic sites. Sure, Bush and the religious right were some of the worst people to have in control of our nation since ultra racist Woodrow Wilson, but the Obama love is also verging on painfully foul. Obama has done almost nothing to reverse the civil rights abuses brought on by the Patriot Act and he is spending our nation into a level of debt that threatens to turn America into a second world nation. Given these facts lets refrain from asking the federal government from doing anything for science…ever! Yet another government agency will only muddy up an already muddied public debate, and when the next pres. comes into power that agency will become something else we may not like. Real science can win in an open market place of ideas, which is why creationists want to control school boards. All we should want is a level playing field. Let science prevail on its own merits and keep the government out of the debate.

  28. All of you people who want to give Texas back to Mexico are not going to help us win this state back from the Christian Nazi’s.

    What we need is for more smart people to move to texas instead of giving up, and help us vote to change things the right way.

    We were very close in the last elections to voting blue. With all the smart people fleeing we will soon be overrun with religious wackos and their offspring. And then they will spread their disease to other states.

    The battle line is drawn. Stop the religious zombies from overtaking the world and destroying everything you hold dear.

  29. I went to the petition, saw they wanted my home address, so I proceeded to the privacy policy where they make a point to tell you about their (drum roll please)… biorhythm generator.

    “The biorhythm generator is a Care2 feature that plots graph results of an individual’s intellectual, physical and emotional biorhythm cycles based on the individual’s birth date. To use the feature, users enter their birth date and the date for which they wish to view results. This information is only used for the Biorhythm feature. ”

    http://www.care2.com/help/general/privacy.html

  30. Siphoneuphoria

    @ Richard

    From the Science Progress article:

    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…

    Thiss sounds more like science informing policy than the state controlling science.

  31. Richard

    @Siphoneuphoria Organizations that “shape legislation” (or even “help” do so) are quite literally tools for state control of science. Every bill that comes up is an opportunity to put force behind an unreasonable policy.

  32. Gary

    There’s a problem here. Science doesn’t belong in government because it will be co-opted for government’s purposes. Look at NASA. It was created because of a geopolitical rivalry and some of it’s choices (ISS, for instance) are made for political reasons. That’s bad for science. So the trick is for Science to advise government without becoming its slave… but that may be impossible. A reconstituted OTA is likely to become another NOAA, FDA or EPA that does some scientific work while primarily pushing an non-science agenda.

  33. QP

    You’re not supposed to remember that.

    Well, yeah, I thought that was the rule since Clinton’s White House hummer. Aren;t we supposed to ignore the private matters of politicians? Man, you partisans keep changing the rules. So was it OK for Edwards to exp[loit his wife’s cancer during the election?

    Or is the algorithm just:

    if politician = my_side then
    Ignore negatives
    else
    Focus on negatives to exclusion of all other factors
    end if

  34. Quiet Desperation

    So the trick is for Science to advise government without becoming its slave… but that may be impossible.

    Perhaps some sort of think tank funded by both private and publis funds is needed? Like a non military version of the RAND Corporation. Or maybe the government could create a forum into which many think tanks, both new and existing, could pool their ideas. Have some sort of system so that the best ideas float to the top.

    I’ve heard the mathematical techniques behind futures markets could be useful here. They were going to try and use that to predict terrorist threats a few years back, but the total and complete moron news media and millions of total and complete zerobrained idiots misunderstood it to mean they were going to allow some sort of actual wagering on terror incidents, so yet another potentially valuable tool was killed by the mass stupidity of humanity.

  35. Siphoneuphoria

    Look at NASA. It was created because of a geopolitical rivalry and some of it’s choices (ISS, for instance) are made for political reasons.

    What I get from this is that the space program wouldn’t exist without that rivalry. So, I don’t think that’s a very good argument for keeping government out of science. Right? or am I missing something here. That article has some pretty convincing arguments for the OTA and saying that it will probably be partisan doesn’t seem like a good enough reason not to support it.

  36. otafan

    I wouldn’t count on Bill Foster to support reinstating OTA. At the AAAS meeting last February he said that OTA was biased and partisan, based on his analysis of a few OTA report titles (and perhaps a summary or two) in the online OTA archive. Most scientists would not be comfortable making proclamations based on so little data with no information about how OTA actually operated.

    From the Science Progress article:
    “… perhaps OTA’s greatest challenges were to insulate itself from political pressure and to minimize any biases in its own operations. These responsibilities fell to its Congressional oversight body, the Technology Assessment Board. TAB’s voting members consisted of six senators and six members of the House of Representatives, evenly split among majority and minority parties no matter what the composition of either chamber. This balance made TAB the most bipartisan Congressional committee possible.”

  37. Quiet Desperation

    With all the smart people fleeing we will soon be overrun with religious wackos and their offspring.

    It *is* more tragic that way, but it is also, however, *funnier*. ;-)

  38. The OTA was my favorite government agency ever. It remained scrupulously non-partisan and its reports explained scientific and technological concepts – some very complex ones – very well for the non-specialist. Because the staff wrote these reports for members of Congress they had to make complete explanations that a college-educated person of at least average intelligence could understand. And librarians loved them for that and they often included copious primary sources and suggestions for further reading, identified experts within the government or academic community and surprisingly candid assessments of some of the political actions taken (or not) relating to the topic in question.

    I understand the concerns of those who wonder about “state sanctioned science” but if the OTA were restored to its former self, that would make for a great leap, if not forward, then back to the present and out of the medieval Bush ages.

  39. Richard

    @Steven Dunlap, etc. No one is stopping those of you who think this is a great idea from starting your OWN organization(s) that explain scientific and technological concepts for lay people and provide summaries to Congress. Why are you so willing to force a solution on everybody, but not to do the work yourselves?

  40. “I can’t forget that he divorced his first wife while she was sick with cancer so he could marry somebody he’d been cheating on her with.”

    A false story and one not relevant.

    I’m not sure that resurrecting the OTA, even if we accept that it was a good thing back in the 80’s, is a good idea. Does anyone think that, in the present environment, they are going to refrain from endorsing “green jobs” and certain car technologies and energy policies that have far more to do with economics than science?

    I prefer that Congress stay the heck out of the nuts and bolts of science. Science funding should never come from specific budget requests and certainly not earmarks. It should come from peer-reviewed agencies like, DOE, NIH and NSF. Those agencies could also be tasked with advising Congress on larger issues like stem cells.

  41. Cindy

    Rush Holt is my congressman, but I’ll go ahead and write him. Not only does he have a Ph.D. in physics, but he ran Princeton’s Plasma Lab for several years.

    Rush Holt’s election bumper stickers say “My congressman IS a rocket scientist”.

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