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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Office of Technology Assessment Reconsidered

Several weeks ago, I responded to Darlene the Science Cheerleader's call to reinstate the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Today I got a comment from Nate Hafer at the Federation of American Scientists, which maintains the OTA's report archive, asking to again highlight the site. I have not problem with that. Mr. Hafer also called my attention to the video by Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) in favor of reinstating this office.

I had no objection to any of Congressman Holt's comments; they seemed perfectly reasonable. But if concerned citizens like me are going to call for OTA's reinstatement, I think it is time for Mr. Hafer, Darlene, et al., to lay their cards on the table. Before OTA is reborn I would want to know the following:

  • How, exactly, would a revived OTA would function?
  • How big would it be?
  • Who would participate?
  • More importantly (from my semi-mistrustful point of view) who DECIDES who gets to participate?
  • What would the new OTA charter look like?
  • What steps would be taken to prevent the real or perceived irrelevance of the agency?
  • What provisions will be made to ensure that OTA remains a "lean and mean," think tank type of organization?
  • In short, what will OTA supporters do to assure budget hawks that the agency deserves to be reborn when there is already a call to decrease the deficit, balance the budget, and eliminate a great deal of waste elsewhere in the federal government?

I spend my days fighting for one of the most neglected agencies in the government, NASA. I could see some wiseacre saying, "Well, we can take OTA's funding out of NASA's research and development budget," or somesuch thing. Not impossible, at any rate.

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On a similar and more positive note, I saw recently that the National Science Foundation has put in a budget of $6.85 billion for 2009, a 14 percent increase--and might get it. Jeez, a 14 percent increase in NASA's budget (nearly $3 billion!), spread appropriately among the five directorates, would be enough to make up for damages from Katrina, plug some funding holes in Constellation, AND provide healthy increases for science and aeronautics! Of course, I don't get to decide how NASA's budget is divvied up, more's the pity. Still, the NSF budget increase is a sign that the government GETS IT when it comes to the need for increased science funding. Progress, of a sort, which Bush most likely won't get credit for in certain circles, but so it goes.

6 comments:

Darlene said...

Bart, great comments. It's important we demand answers to the very important questions you posted. I don't want to waste my time pushing for an office that has no merit and will fall into the hands of manipulators (politically and financially). The beauty of the OTA, by all accounts, is that is has a proven track record of being clean, useful and sharp with their limited dollars. A new OTA, however, should include a mechanism for citizens to participate in critical policy issues...and the new OTA should find ways to use 21st century technologies to speed the process of producing its reports, for sure. Take for example, the latest concerns re: cell phones and links to brain cancer. Citizens may not have much to add to the scientific dispute but as more and more links are found, we should have a say in how cell phones are regulated, how we are warned about their harmfulness and how much we (as citizens and consumers) are willing to risk our health for the sake of convenience....there is no one agency to help Congress make any sense of this and impart policy that helps protect us yet keeps our freedom to choose alive and kicking. And, I hear what you are saying about NASA. Yes, there will be someone who says "take from one agency to give to this one" but we need to let Congress know that THAT is not acceptable. Take from a pork barrel project and give to the OTA for goodness sake. Keep talking about these issues, Bart (especially your support of NASA). I, for one, am glad you are!

Anonymous said...

what will OTA supporters do to assure budget hawks that the agency deserves to be reborn when there is already a call to decrease the deficit, balance the budget, and eliminate a great deal of waste elsewhere in the federal government?

OTA was always tiny. It would be no threat whatsoever to other agencies' budgets. Arguing against OTA on the basis of thrift is really being penny wise and pound foolish: part of the function of OTA is to improve Congress's decision making so there's less waste.

A new OTA, however, should include a mechanism for citizens to participate in critical policy issues

I disagree. OTA needs to stay focused on doing analysis for Congress. There are many mechanisms for citizens to make Congress aware of their views, but it's inappropriate to introduce that type of activity into OTA's analysis function.

Bartacus said...

I have to disagree with Anonymous. As Congressman Holt noted in his statement, Congress has had hearings on many of the issues OTA was covering as late as 1995. Hearings are where Congress gets inputs from the public (mainly experts) on particular topics. Another place Congress gets inputs is from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). I believe a couple of folks have said that CRS does not do this sort of research. However, they seem to do a pretty good job of covering space-related issues--I know, I've read their reports. So I guess I'm forced to ask, once again, what special niche OTA would fill if members of Congress (and the Senate) are already receiving testimony from experts and reports from the CRS.

Volley!

Bartacus said...

I have also read some rather good technical assessments of the Constellation Program from the GAO. Anonymous's comments are causing my previous doubts to resurface. Alas.

d linda garcia said...

A number of OTA studies had mechanisms for public participation, dating back to the automobile assessment. Some studies also included outreach efforts and field trips and ethnographic-types of analyses--The Rural America at the Cross Roads Study comes to mind.

d linda garcia said...

There were a number of OTA studies that provided for public participation--well beyond hearings and the advisory panels. A number used field trips and ethnographic methodologies. The Rural America at the Crossroads comes to mind. Of course, new technologies would facilitate this even more