Congressional Science Analysis: Do We Really Need To Revive The Office Of Technology Assessment?

By The Intersection | August 15, 2008 11:15 am

by Philip H.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed below are those of the author. They do not represent the opinion, policy or administrative decisions of any county, state or federal agency for which the author works or may have worked. In other words, if you don’t like these opinions, contact the author, not your Congressmen.

keystone.pngThere is a recent report out from the Keystone Center. Titled “Science and Technology Policy in Congress,” the report was produced in conjunction with the Consensus Building Institute. And, with all of the House of Representatives and 1/3 rd of the Senate up for election this year (along with the President) it is probably something the science community should pay attention to.

It’s good points are to be found mostly in Chapter 6: Congressional Recommendations to Best Access Science and Technology Analysis that is Relevant, Timely, Credible, Affordable, and Legitimate and Chapter 7: What Next? Hill folks interviewed and surveyed for the report see a need for a robust science and technology capability within the national political structure. They want better identification of the sources from which science knowledge can be had – especially with regard to which institutions would be experts on which subjects. The respondents also wanted both the National Academies of Science and the Congressional Research Service to be enhanced, so that both could provide timely analysis and policy recommendations on important technology and science questions. This was seen by the respondents as being a politically neutral way to enhance the standing of science and the science policy debate.

The bad news – there were only 28 interviewees. Three were Democratic members of one chamber or the other, five were Republican members, and the rest were staff – most of whom were on science related committees. So the sample size is very small, which makes it hard to really know if many of the other 527 members share these views or not. While this may be statistically accurate, with such a small and defined universe, I have to think there may have been a way to get everyone to answer in some fashion. The second challenge with the report is the short list of questions asked of the interviewees – 7 in all. They are well written and focused – “On what issues do you seek scientific and technical advice; where do you seek and obtain that advice?” – but they leave out a lot of the back story as to why science and technology are not often debated on the scientific principle or technical merits. They omit completely the fact that few Members are really scientists, and the few who are, are usually not researchers (instead they are doctors, engineers and at least one physicist). Thus, science policy often gets debated from the context of jobs created or lost, new regulations promulgated or old ones relaxed, or some other not-really-related perspective.

So what are we in the science community to make of this? First, even with the small sample size, there are obviously those on Capitol Hill who do regard science and technology as key issues requiring a significant public investment. Second, such people should be sought out and helped, especially when they are working to better the position of the science community. Third, the report does indeed lay out where and when the science community may better plug into the Hill process. That is important, because as much as it is lamented in the rest of the country, Beltway insiders are really in control of a lot of resources that they American science community needs. So we ignore these statements at our own peril, especially in this highly partisan day and age. Given the needs for scientific solutions to the challenges of global climate change, energy independence, food production, and the emergence (and reemergence) of devastating disease, the solutions proposed in this report should be tried. If they succeed, America will be better for it. If they fail, we will be no worse off.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics and Science

Comments (5)

  1. Philip,
    This is crucial stuff. Does it say how scientists visiting congress to brief or inform might better prepare to engage?

  2. This is as close as the report comes:

    “Framing science and technology to be compelling to Congress – Some interviewees noted that in order for science and technology to be compelling as a policy topic, the
    general issue must be reframed and made more relevant for individual Members in their districts. Some noted the current Administration’s effort to frame science and technology issues as ones of “American Competitiveness” is a step in the right direction. Others noted that those who care about science and technology have to find ways to make the issues (and their analysis) relevant to individual Members of Congress in their individual districts. If science and technology can be associated with jobs, children’s future, quality of life, public safety, and/or national security in very concrete ways, Members might be able, and more willing, to pay more attention to these

    The Hill folks I know also tell me that they need short, high impact statements, nothing longer then two pages, and with graphics and language that can be understood by “normal” people.

  3. Thanks, Philip. Do you think most scientists understand these requirements and/or are capable of meeting them?

    And, my God, framing…how dare they suggest making the information relevant to the audience!

  4. Thanks for this insight. One way to make sure the issues are relevant to “normal” people is to include voters in some of the discussions. There are ways to make this workable but Congress and scientists would first need to feel comfortable with the idea of including the public in certain matters of science policy discussions. (Blue sky dreaming: I’d vote for opening an OTA with a mechanism for public inclusion.) Think that would make the idea of opening the OTA more or less palatable to Congress?
    (Phil: you have a great blog…so do you, Chris Mooney.)

  5. This is really a very pertinent discussion. All the more so, I believe, because both Republicans and Democrats are showing a near total disregard for science in their search for votes in November. In fact, last Sunday’s NY Times editorial on a Sane Energy Policy was right on target about the politics.

    I am not sure that Darlene’s comments about including the voters is all that pertinent. If the major issue for voters continues to be the price of gasoline, then set everyone off to find the solution to the wrong problem, as I commented on my blog. I include a reference to Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter. I believe everyone is using that irrationality to serve very partisan goals.

    There are those in government who know the science. Dr. Patricia Dehmer (DOE) is one. Dr. James Hansen (NASA) in another. It is just not in the interest of most politicians to listen to either.

    On the other hand, the Green Party did choose its resident scientist, Dr. Kent Mesplay, as a candidate either. Mesplay, however, did get it. He said that he wanted “public officials who treat science with respect and who actually work to make us more secure rather than catering to their favorite businesses. Maybe we need better politicians along with scientists with a PhD in Framing.


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