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Bring Back OTA--Congress' Own Think Tank

Scientists cheered in 1972 when Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment, a PhD-laden think tank that was dedicated to providing policy analyses and technical evaluations for the House and Senate. They wept in 1995, when, in a burst of political pique and boastful penny-pinching, Newt Gingrich and his Republican Revolution abolished OTA. Resuscitation efforts started then, and continue--in futility. Thus, in the current Congress, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), one of the few scientists i

By | May 19, 2003

Scientists cheered in 1972 when Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment, a PhD-laden think tank that was dedicated to providing policy analyses and technical evaluations for the House and Senate. They wept in 1995, when, in a burst of political pique and boastful penny-pinching, Newt Gingrich and his Republican Revolution abolished OTA.

Resuscitation efforts started then, and continue--in futility. Thus, in the current Congress, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), one of the few scientists in Congress, reintroduced the Office of Technology Reestablishment Act. Like its predecessors, the bill disappeared into the black hole of legislative losers, never heard of again. In today's political climate, with former Speaker Gingrich's ideological kinsmen still ascendant, the restoration movement is becalmed. All the more reason to keep alive fading memories of OTA's achievements while recognizing the failings that contributed to its demise--and waiting hopefully for a swing of the political pendulum.

By many measures, OTA was a great success, so widely supported by Democrats and Republicans that the abolition gambit immediately encountered trouble. At first it appeared that OTA might survive, overcoming allegations of Democratic taint and political resentments over some reports. In the end, it succumbed to a flimsy but politically appealing argument: thrift. The new Republican majority wished to show that its budget-slashing passion extended to the $3 billion annually spent by the Congress itself. A mere 23 years in existence, OTA was a junior latecomer to the traditionally slow-changing Congressional milieu; it lacked significant roots in the wheeling-dealing Capitol Hill community. Its $20 million budget was lightly defended.

They were "looking for a scalp," once remarked John Gibbons, a physicist who headed OTA for 14 years before signing on as Bill Clinton's White House science adviser. OTA became a Congressional budget-cutting victim--virtually the only one. At work, too, was the new leadership's aversion to scientific independence. Here and elsewhere, politics trumped science. OTA's 140-member staff scattered, leaving a legacy of more than 700 reports, many still cited as the definitive word on important, complex issues.

Shunning nostalgia, what can we realistically conclude about the OTA's merits and faults, and does a strong case exist--replete with correctives to its shortcomings--for its restoration?

Innumerable organizations shower Congress with reports and analyses. Committees hear leading experts from universities and scientific societies, and the Library of Congress performs research for members and committees; so why bring back the OTA?

OTA differed from all the outsiders. Its loyalty was to only one master, the US Congress. Its creators had insulated it against the financial angst that afflicts many research organizations, which often leads to real or perceived conflicts of interest. It was deliberately structured to dig deeply into its assigned topics, often taking two years or more to collect and analyze data, opinions, and critiques. OTA's output included short memos on hot legislative issues, but its hallmark was the definitive report, running hundreds of pages, providing an exhaustive, balanced study. In contrast, the Library of Congress provides brief, rapid reviews of pending issues.

OTA's reports covered an astonishing range of topics, from the validity of polygraph technology to the management of hazardous wastes, from the sources and control of acid rain to the nation's natural gas reserves, intellectual property rights, highway safety, and missile defense.

The thoroughness, professional quality, and nonpartisan nature of its studies underpinned legislation supported by both parties. With a highly professional staff, and the prestige and resources to tap expert consultants, even from abroad, OTA was an intellectual powerhouse. In a setting where nothing escapes political suspicion, OTA's political purity was assured by a bipartisan board of directors drawn from each house. Parliamentarians worldwide admiringly observed OTA's pioneering role in the legislative process, and today, various versions of OTA exist in a dozen European nations and in the European parliament.

But its thoroughness contributed to its downfall. OTA's commitment to deep, comprehensive research put it on a timescale often out of sync with the legislative tempo. Studies sometimes came to fruition after the battles were over. Also, to keep its workload manageable, OTA took assignments only from committee chairmen, thus failing to court Congress' rank and file. When the crunch came, some junior members knew little about the imperiled agency and simply followed the leadership in abolishing it.

Near the end, aware of these shortcomings, OTA staffers quickened their pace, issuing short reports based on work in progress, and undertaking missionary efforts to junior members and their staffs. The Republicans gained the congressional majority as these attempted correctives were taking place. The remedies seemed to be on the right track, as evidenced by strong, though ultimately insufficient, support in OTA's final days.

With or without an OTA, Congress faces pressing issues containing complex scientific and technical ingredients: emerging diseases, such as SARS; responses to bioterrorism and the associated risks and benefits of smallpox and anthrax vaccinations; global climate change; the new worlds of genetic technology and nanotechnology, and so on.

They all need congressional scrutiny. And Congress needs the OTA.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a journalist in Washington, DC, and the author of Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion (University of Chicago Press, 2001).


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