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Teich Urges Congress to Seek New Means of Obtaining Science Advice
Albert Teich, director of Science and Policy at AAAS, testified before the House Science Committee on the urgent need for better methods of obtaining timely scientific and technical advice for U.S. lawmakers.
Teich contended that although Congress is currently considering bills with complex scientific and technological questions on issues such as stem cell research, climate change, fuel cells, energy policy and agricultural policy, too few members have backgrounds or experience in science and technological fields to adequately evaluate the issues.
“Congress is increasingly addressing complex scientific issues,” Teich said during the 25 July session in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. “Few members of Congress … and congressional staffers have backgrounds in science. Do adequate resources exist for Congress to address these issues? From our perspective, the answer is no.”
Teich spoke alongside four other scientists: Jon Peha, co-editor of Science and Technology Advice for Congress and professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University; Catherine Hunt, president-elect of the American Chemical Society; Peter Blair, executive director of the division on engineering and physical sciences at the National Research Council; and U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a former AAAS Congressional Fellow (1982-83) who holds a Ph.D. in physics from New York University.
The hearing, “Scientific and Technical Advice for the U.S. Congress,” comes more than ten years after Congress terminated funding for its Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in September 1995.
Created in 1972, the OTA was an office in the legislative branch charged with the responsibility to provide congressional members and committees with accurate and independent analyses on a wide range of scientific and technological issues.
For Holt, a program like OTA is essential because it is able to dedicate more time than any one legislator could allot to a single issue.
“None of us in Congress have time to analyze scientific and technological advances and make reasoned, logical determinations of their direction and impact on industry, nations, and education,” Holt said. “We cannot do this alone.”
Although some observers contend that the decision to withdraw OTA funding was a matter of budget-cutting because of the growing deficit, others saw it as a partisan move following the Republican victory in the 1994 congressional elections. However, not all GOP members followed the party line.
“I was a strong defender of OTA—and I voted against defunding it—but OTA is not likely to be considered any time soon,” said U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee.
Teich was quick to point out that although OTA no longer exists, there are plenty of organizations willing to provide scientific and technological advice on a wide range of issues.
“Universities and scientific societies, including AAAS, have expanded efforts to bring accurate scientific information to Congress through reports on policy-relevant topics, position statements and scientific briefings,” Teich said.
For Teich, the concern is not the lack of organizations willing to offer advice and opinions.
“Information is not in short supply on Capitol Hill, but information is not knowledge,” Teich asserted. “[We need] credible sources to provide timely analysis and synthesis of scientific and technical information as a foundation for congressional decisions.”
Teich cited the AAAS Congressional Fellows program as an example of how scientists and engineers can provide important technical input into congressional decision-making.
Founded in 1973, the program places approximately 35 Ph.D.-level scientists and engineers on congressional staffs for a period of one year. AAAS, along with other professional science societies, pays the fellows a stipend, therefore providing congressional members with a free resource.
On the fellowship, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) remarked: “They (AAAS Fellows) are wonderful sources for Congress that I take advantage of. I have had an AAAS Fellow with my office for the last 15 years. They have all been superior—they have really contributed greatly to my effectiveness, my efficiency, and my understanding.”
For Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), ranking Democrat on the committee, non-partisan programs like OTA hold the promise of authoritative and respected answers to many difficult science questions considered by Congress.
“In the years since OTA, we have had an increasingly difficult time of reaching consensus on a wide variety of these topics,” Gordon lamented. “We certainly could use in-house help in sorting through conflicting expert opinion.”
Earlier in the session, Boehlert asserted that even if another in-house organization was formed, there is a strong possibility it would not be able to meet those high standards.
“Much of the lament one hears about OTA's demise is really not a concern about what advice Congress is getting, but rather about what decisions Congress is making,” B oehlert said. “So it is important to remember that not all people will reach the same policy conclusion based on the same scientific information—even if they understand and accept that information.”
Currently, legislators obtain most of their independent research from other congressional support agencies—for example, the Government Accountability Office, Congressional Research Service, and Congressional Budget Office.
For some, while these agencies are able to provide independent, reliable conclusions, they lack the technical expertise of an organization that deals specifically with questions of science.
“Nonpartisanship, objectivity and responsiveness to members' requests make [these] valuable resources, though they are not solely dedicated to science and technology,” Teich said.
Hunt, who frequently advises officials on Capitol Hill, contends a new scientific agency would have to perform a seemingly impossible role—it must be able to explain complex science to non-scientists.
“To be effective, a new science and technology assessment unit must be equally effective in two sometimes contradictory functions,” Hunt described. “[It must] assemble world-class scientific and technology assessments and provide information to Congress in a form and manner that facilitates your (Congress') making policy decisions.”
Concluding his testimony, Teich echoed Hunt's assertion that Congress must be assured that it can get sound advice when deliberating on the major questions of the future.
The even greater role of science and technology in today's society demands that we seek innovative methods suited to 21 st century needs to provide Congress with objective, timely, policy-relevant analyses—that is knowledge that Members can use,” Teich said.
3 August 2006