The Push for Restarting the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment

By Chris Mooney | March 31, 2009 2:28 pm

I’m starting to detect some buzz on this very important front, which I wrote about in detail in 2005’s The Republican War on Science and elsewhere. Basically, the story is this: In 1995 the Gingrich Republicans, looking to slash budgets–and looking askance at science in general in many areas–got rid of their scientific advisory office, which had been in existence since 1972 and had become world renowned not only for accurate studies, but for far-ranging analyses that forecast future science and technology problems that we might someday have to grapple with. For our unfailingly presentist elected representatives, this was a vital source of perspective on where things are heading.

Technically OTA was merely defunded by the Gingrichites, rather than thoroughly dismantled. And one of its champions, my own legislator Rush Holt of Princeton, New Jersey, is now pushing to bring it back. See the details here from Science Cheerleader, who wants not only to reopen OTA but to include a more significant public participation component in its technological decisionmaking–an advance that I for one would thoroughly welcome.

Meanwhile, over at Science Progress, former OTA staffer Jerry Epstein lays out the case for why we need OTA to be revived: Decision-making is perhaps more dependent on scientific and technological knowledge than ever, and yet scientific misinformation also abounds more than ever thanks to the growth of ideological think tanks and the Internet. In this context, Congress is literally flying blind. There is no body of consensus information that our legislators can use for the purposes of decision-making; but there is a heck of a lot of nonsense being fed to them constantly. OTA served, as one legislator memorably put it, as a “defense against the dumb”; without it, Congress is defenseless.

So we most certainly ought to bring OTA back, and let’s hope that Holt succeeds–but it won’t be easy. Republicans defunded OTA, but Democrats have not yet revived it–and the politics of science have only become more tense since 1995. So to show your support, sign the OTA petition here–and contact your legislators!

Comments (11)

  1. At both the 2008 AAAS S&T policy forum and this year’s AAAS annual meeting, there have been pretty strident calls for OTA to be resurrected.

  2. Trevor

    Given the ability of government to stifle and warp (for political ends, of course) scientific research, shouldn’t we push for *less* not more government involvement? A congressional OTA could just as easily be hijacked by political parties to advance completely *un*scientific goals. Look at how the Bush administration appointed political hacks at the FDA to block Plan-B (among other things). A more important question is not whether the OTA is resurrected or not, but how government can best encourage science without directing its course. Am I missing something?

  3. Congress should take every chance to get well-informed positions on everything they come up to vote for. Sadly, it appears that they prefer to fly blind most times. A 1,100+ page document? Lets bring it up to vote in 2 hours, forget about setting aside time to read it!

  4. This bodes well toward helping to increase scientific literacy of the citizens of this country and- dare I say it- scientific competitiveness we’ve been lacking for too long! Let’s hope some ethics is also employed as this has also caused too many problems!

  5. JT Lewis

    Thanks to all the science policy advocates who have kept this issue alive. Just as an informed electorate is key to democracy, an informed congress is essential to sound science legislation and policy. Was the OTA perfect? No. But it fulfilled a critical gap. We need to resurrect the OTA, or something akin to it. To further our national science profile and competitive edge) , not to dictate politically-driven outcomes.

  6. I remember Carl Sagan bristling at the dismantling of OTA in 95. He would have felt gratified.

  7. Trevor, Post # 2, on the basis of the OTA’s brief history, please be assured that your fears are unfounded. The OTA had a sterling history of providing objective and elegant reports. Indeed, it is this absence of concessions to politics that contributed to the political hostility from certain quarters that contributed to its demise. A restored OTA could reasonably be expected to be as objective and as thrical as it was during its first incarnation.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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