Saturday, April 11, 2009

Reviving the Office of Technology Assessment

In the event this blog attracts some new readers, I'll briefly explain my angle and background here. I am a professional technical writer, which means that my day job is spent making technical content understandable to at least a high-school-educated voting public. In my free time, I am a conservative advocate for the human exploration, development, and settlement of space. I was also one of those fans of Speaker Gingrich who didn't much mourn the departure of the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995, so I've needed to be convinced of its utility and (reasonbly) bipartisan credentials.

However, below is one useful set of statistics that convinced me of the need for OTA. It is a list of the previous occupations of members of congress:

  • Doctors - 9
  • Ministers -4
  • State Governors - 14
  • State Lt. Governors - 11
  • State Legislators - 274
  • Congressional Staffers - 110
  • White House Staffers - 14
  • Law Enforcement Officers - 13
  • CIA/FBI Agents - 4
  • Scientists - 7
  • Peace Corps Volunteers - 4

That means less than 2 percent of nation's federal legislators are formally trained in the disciplines necessary to understand scientific and technological issues. That alone should scare the heck out of you.

Now there is a hazy middle ground between science and politics, which is becoming hazier as more and more of our hot political issues have scientific or technological aspects to them. There are scientists out there who are content to continue doing the science and to leave the policy-making to Washington. On the other hand, there are people like NASA's James Hansen and author-environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, who are scientist-advocates and who have one foot in the scientific realm and one foot in the political realm. In my opinion, this is dangerous and a warping of science as originally conceived. The facts are the facts. Interpreting the meaning of facts is another step. Recommending policies in the face of said facts is yet another step. Analyzing the impact of, and recommending, said policies is yet another. And finally voting on what policy to accept is the job of Congress.

It seems to me that OTA should be filling that middle ground between understanding the policy implications of the facts and analyzing the impacts of policies related to the science/technology. Practicing field scientists and engineers provide the data. Politically minded scientists/engineers and scientifically/technically trained politicians should be evaluating the policies in the middle ground, and those individuals, combined with interested and informed citizens, should do some of the heavy lifting before anything resembling a bill reaches a subcommittee.

The questions I asked when first approached about OTA have not changed:

  • How would a revived OTA would function?
  • How big would it be?
  • Who would participate? More importantly (from my watchful 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?
  • And finally, what will be done by the OTA to ensure that its deliberations or findings are public and made understandable to the voters? After all, it is not enough for members of congress to understand the implications of what they're doing--their constituents should have some notion, too. As a professional communicator, that is why I've advocated "plain language" requirements be added to any OTA charter.

I read a commenter on Facebook who questioned the need for "citizen input," which Darlene and I have argued is a necessary part of the equation. As the writer put it,

Science works because it doesn't consider popular opinion or what people want to be true. Its value is in eliminating individual (and group) bias in favor of objective observation.

I wouldn't argue with that definition of science. As I noted above, the facts should be the facts. The problem, as always, is what do you do about them? And that should be the job of the OTA: to offer clear explanations of what to do about particular scientific or technological developments and to explain what the costs and benefits (long-term and short-term) will be for any course of action. That is not solely the realm of science; it is the job of politics.

Some scientists might take umbrage with that notion--after all, who are these uneducated cretins to decide on something that is obviously a scientific fact?! The citizens are not there to debate the facts/findings, but to debate what's to be done about them, and to offer up explanations of what the impacts will be if certain courses of action are taken. The "answer" to a particular scientific or technical challenge might be pretty straightforward: divert the asteroid, build (or don't build) the dam, spend more money on research project A, or put tighter controls on research project X. However, in those situations where the costs of particular courses of action are massive and the potential benefit(s) might be in doubt, I would very much want debate on the matter. If we succumb to complete technocracy ("rule by the experts"), however wise or well-meaning they may be, we might very well be giving up something as precious as our lives--the freedoms that make those lives worth living.

1 comment:

Science Cheerleader said...

Great stuff, Bart. Seems there are at least a few conservatives in support of reopening the OTA! In answer to a couple of your questions:
because the OTA is officially still in existence (it was defunded but not deleted from law), it would be reopened with funds but the legislative language defining its goals would initially be the same as they were in the early 70s when the office was first opened. There's a clear mandate that all OTA reports must be made available to the public. As you know, I'm pushing for more in terms of public participation so I'd like to see the OTA to take on (as one of its first items of order) a study on what topics should include the public and how citizens can be tapped most effectively.
I'll post some of your comments on scicheer. Your questions are spot-on and anyone examining this issue should take every one of them into account.
Thanks, Bart!