Petition Signing: Re-Opening the Office of Technology Assessment
This one was thrown over the transom by Darlene, the Science Cheerleader: it's a petition to ask Congress to reinstate the Office of Technology Assessment, a citizens' advisory group which, unlike the folks who run the National Science Foundation, are not necessarily scientists or experts in a particular scientific field. What the OTA did, from 1972 to 1995, is throw a group of concerned citizens into a room, have them discuss particular issues of science or technology policy, and then write up reports based on their discussion--particularly focusing on points of commonality.
Some reports that might be of interest to readers of this blog (or more to the point, the writer of this blog) include:
- Affordable Spacecraft: Design and Launch Alternatives (1990)
- American Military Power: Future Needs, Future Choices (October 1991)
- Analysis of Laws Governing Access Across Federal Lands: Options for Access in Alaska (February 1979)
- Analysis of the Feasibility of Separating Exploration From Production of Oil and Gas on the Outer Continental Shelf (May 1975)
- Anti-Satellite Weapons, Countermeasures, and Arms Control (September 1985)
- Application of Solar Technology to Today's Energy Needs-Vol. I (June 1978)
- Application of Solar Technology to Today's Energy Needs-Vol. II (September 1978)
- Arms Control in Space (May 1984)
- An Assessment of Oil Shale Technologies (June 1980)
- Ballistic Missile Defense Technologies (September 1985)
- Big Dumb Boosters: A Low-Cost Space Transportation Option? (February 1989)
- Civilian Satellite Remote Sensing: A Strategic Approach (September 1994)
- Civilian Space Policy and Applications (June 1982)
- Civilian Space Stations and the U.S. Future in Space (November 1984)
- Commercial Newsgathering From Space (May 1987)
- Directed Energy Missile Defense in Space (April 1984)
- Educating Scientists and Engineers: Grade School to Grad School (June 1988)
- Education and Technology: Future Visions (September 1995)
- The Effects of Nuclear War (May 1979)
- Electronic Surveillance and Civil Liberties (October 1985)
- Electronic Surveillance in a Digital Age (July 1995)
- Elementary and Secondary Education for Science and Engineering (December 1988)
- Engineering Implications of Chronic Materials Scarcity (April 1977)
- Enhanced Oil Recovery Potential in the United States (January 1978)
- Exploring the Moon and Mars: Choices for the Nation (July 1991)
- Federal Research and Technology for Aviation (September 1994)
- The Fusion Energy Program: The Role of TPX and Alternate Concepts (February 1995)
- The Future of Remote Sensing From Space: Civilian Satellite Systems and Applications (July 1993)
- Holding the Edge: Maintaining the Defense Technology Base (April 1989)
- Holding the Edge: Maintaining the Defense Technology Base-Vol. II, Appendices (January 1990)
- Innovation and Commercialization of Emerging Technologies (September 1995)
- Launch Options for the Future: A Buyer's Guide (July 1988)
- The Lower Tiers of the Space Transportation Industrial Base (August 1995)
- Multinationals and the National Interest: Playing by Different Rules (September 1993)
- MX Missile Basing (September 1981)
- NASA's Office of Space Science and Applications: Process, Priorities and Goals (January 1992)
- The National Space Transportation Policy: Issues for Congress (May 1995)
- Oil Production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: The Technology and the Alaskan Oil Context (February 1989) (Note how long THIS one has been an issue...)
- Orbiting Debris: A Space Environmental Problem (October 1990)
- Proliferation and the Former Soviet Union (September 1994)
- Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the Risks (August 1993)
- Remote Sensing and the Private Sector: Issues for Discussion (March 1984)
- Remotely Sensed Data From Space: Distribution, Pricing, and Applications (July 1992)
- Remotely Sensed Data: Technology, Management and Markets (September 1994)
- Research Funding as an Investment: Can We Measure the Returns? (April 1986) (Considering how much on-duty time I've spent researching this precise question, I'd bloody well better read this one!)
- Round Trip to Orbit: Human Spaceflight Alternatives (August 1989)
- SALYUT: Soviet Steps Toward Permanent Human Presence in Space (December 1983)
- SDI: Technology, Survivability, and Software (May 1988)
- Solar Power Satellites (August 1981)
- Space Science Research in the United States (September 1982)
- Space Stations and the Law: Selected Legal Issues (August 1986)
- Starpower: The U.S. and the International Quest for Fusion Energy (October 1987)
- Technologies Underlying Weapons of Mass Destruction (December 1993)
- Technology Against Terrorism: Structuring Security (January 1992)
- Technology Against Terrorism: The Federal Effort (July 1991)
- Technology Transfer to China (July 1987)
- Technology Transfer to the Middle East (September 1984)
- U.S. Oil Production: The Effect of Low Oil Prices (July 1987) (This ought to be a hoot.)
- U.S.-Russian Cooperation in Space (April 1995)
- U.S.-Soviet Cooperation in Space (July 1985)
- U.S. Vulnerability to an Oil Import Curtailment (September 1984) (This one ought NOT to be a hoot--we're close to that now.)
- Verification Technologies: Managing Research and Development for Cooperative Arms Control Monitoring Measures (May 1991)
- Verification Technologies: Measures for Monitoring Compliance With the START Treaty (December 1990)
- Virtual Reality and Technologies for Combat Simulation (September 1994)
- Wireless Technologies and the National Information Infrastructure (September 1995)
- World Petroleum Availability 1980-2000 (November 1980)
In any case, there is PLENTY of food for thought here, and as the reader can see, OTA addressees a number of hot issues that affect the voting public. I'd be curious to know more about how OTA actually functioned. The Wikipedia article states that its board members were 12 members of Congress, 6 from each parth. The article also provided this little tidbit, which offers some insight into why it was closed down by Newt Gingrich's 104th Congress:
Criticism of the agency was fueled by Fat City, a 1980 book by Donald Lambro that was regarded favorably by the Reagan administration; it called OTA an "unnecessary agency" that duplicated government work done elsewhere. OTA was abolished in "Contract with America" period of Newt Gingrich's Republican ascendancy in Congress.
At the time that 104th Congress withdrew funding for OTA, it had a full-time staff of 143 people and an annual budget of $21.9 million.
Mind you, there could be unforeseen consequences to this office, depending on its scope of authority. The Congressional Research Service report linked to in the Wikipedia article is worth reading.
Some questions for Darlene:
The CRS report cites criticism of the OTA's research as suffering from "liberal bias," though I'm forced to wonder how this was allowed/possible if both parties had equal membership.
I am also curious about why the same research could not be done by the Congressional Research Service itself--or another office like NSF or GAO.
The OTA Board consists of members of Congress--most of them rich lawyers and not experts in science or technology; also, the reports being generated came from field research and interviews with experts in the field. Where, exactly, would the citizens' voices come in?
The Citizens' Advisory Council for Space, which I mentioned earlier, consisted of both military and civilian types; scientists and engineers; and, for thought consolidation and report writing, science fiction writers (Heinlein, Clarke, Pournelle, and Niven, to name four--the story can be found in "How to Save Civilization (and Make a Little Money)" in Larry Niven's N-Space anthology). A lot of these folks were not policy makers, to be certain, but they were all educated in the fields at hand. Indeed, the SF writers could probably qualify as experts in their field. If a similar structure were proposed for a revived OTA, then presumably it would resemble the CACS. The contributors would be citizens, true, but citizens of a particular education level, income level, or class. Who in a revived OTA would be responsible for translating any reports or results to an increasingly undereducated public?
Understand: I have no particular interest in having the uninformed offer opinions on matters they know nothing about--I'm just curious what means would be available to make the OTA's results accessible to the broader, interested public. One of the points raised by Charles Murray's The Bell Curve is that we run the risk of having our high-tech society ruled increasingly by people who understand said technology. Meanwhile, the portion of the population that remains ignorant of such things increasingly finds itself subject to decisions they don't understand, and that might, in fact, be contrary to their interests. This is one of the dangers of technocracy--rule by the experts. All I'm saying is that any future OTA should be an advisory, not a governing body, and that any reports the Office releases should be released in some sort of plain-language and yes, if possible, "dumbed down" version accessible to high-school-educated lay people. Citizens should know what their lawmakers--and the experts who advise them--are up to, yes?
That's all for now. I'll be signing the petition, but with my reservations noted above.