Speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing on 18 March, Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals, echoed Reps. Mark Takano (D-CA), Bill Foster (D-IL), and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) on the need to reestablish the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a bicameral agency, defunded in 1995, aimed at providing members of Congress expert and unbiased technical and scientific analysis.
Long before he became CEO of AAAS and as a member of the House of Representatives, Holt was a “vocal—but often lone—advocate” of reviving OTA, according to Science in 2014. At the briefing held at the Cannon House Office Building, Holt joined a panel of experts in support of a bipartisan proposal urging the restoration of funding to OTA.
“Congress needs OTA and it needs it now. The evidence from a 20-year experiment without OTA makes quite clear that we have suffered in our decision-making in America’s legislature from the absence of OTA,” said Holt.
From left to right: Lorelei Kelly, Nancy Lubin, and Rush Holt at the Office of Technology Assessment briefing in Capitol Hill. | Juan David Romero
According to Holt the relevance of more than 700 reports prepared by OTA is still clear, and the mechanism of balance to protect against bias and ensure the quality, timeliness, and promptness of the reports worked then and would work now.
“Too often we have considered or not considered legislation in ignorance of the technological and scientific factors,” Holt said, adding that even though OTA was defunded, it’s still authorized, so there is no need to create a new agency. It simply needs to have its funding restored.
Holt stressed some of the reports produced an “amazingly high return of investment with millions of dollars in savings through its recommendations.” He said many other nations’ parliaments have even set up their own systems emulating OTA, in many cases, based on studies of how well OTA worked.
“This isn’t only about technology. This is about policy in every area, whether it’s health or national security, the reach of these reports was huge. It was a very unique agency that I hope will be brought back,” said Nancy Lubin, president of JNA Associates, Inc., former OTA staffer, and one of the panelists.
The chart above details the major steps in the OTA assessment process, which took one to two years to complete. According to the Federation of American Scientists, "The research and writing of OTA assessments was conducted by an OTA staff of about 200, of which two-thirds were the professional research staff. Among the research staff, 88% had advanced degrees, 58% with PhDs, primarily in the physical, life, and social sciences, economics, and engineering. About 40% of the research staff were temporary appointments of professionals recruited specifically to staff ongoing assessments." | Federation of American Scientists
Lubin said that what made OTA unique was that it was unbiased and bipartisan and, more importantly, these attributes were written directly into the statute and OTA’s mission statement. Just within the structure of OTA itself, said Lubin, the law set up a bipartisan Technology Assessment Board (TAB) comprised of six senators and six representatives, with three Republicans and three Democrats from each chamber.
According to Holt, Congress turned out the lights on OTA with the thought that agencies like the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) as well as universities and private industries would fill the void of OTA. But he said the need for OTA has only grown more acute.
Lubin said that CRS and GAO are governed by different mandates and subject to requests from individual members of Congress, whereas OTA had far greater bipartisan oversight reflecting broader policy concerns and looked into problems with more complexity and input from social and physical scientists, providing options and solutions in simple language.
According to Holt, the very need for OTA is at the heart of the reason that Congress isn’t reviving OTA: Members of Congress feel alienated from science and technology and therefore feel that science and technology is not for them.
“One of the strengths of OTA—in fact, almost its reason for being was the realization that science and technology and science can shed light on issues that might or might not be recognized as science and technology issues,” said Holt.