Saturday, June 28, 2008

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:

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.


Anonymous said...

Nice write-up, Bart. A quick clarification and some responses to your questions.
The OTA was not a citizens' advisory group. The OTA was an Office chock-full of science and policy experts whose sole purpose was to evaluate technology policy issues for Congress. Little or no interaction with citizens, in fact. The Office was shut down in the 90s as you cite but to this day, there is no agency (not the Academies, not the CRS, etc) who has filled the gap in providing the services the OTA provided. There are plenty of science advisers and plenty of policy wonks and lobbyists but no one agency exists to give Congress a menu of science policy options and implications of those options. Critics say it took too long for the Office to issue reports and I wouldn't want to see the old OTA reopened primarily b/c it did not seek public input into critical matters of public policy. But a set of converging factors call for creating a new, inclusive, forward-thinking Office of Technology Assessment. Citizens are demanding to be heard, the Internet speeds research/reporting and new organizations have found great success in facilitating meaningful public input from a variety of stakeholders in important policy matters. But the blend of expert/citizen input needs to be shared with Congress in a systematic way or it's a waste of time. Now is the time for Congress to establish a mechanism to produce meaningful, transparent science policy—based on advice that takes into account scientific data, policy implications and the opinions of citizens. It's why I am calling for the reopening of the OTA with citizen input. I'd like to keep this conversation going. You addressed some important concerns. I hope I've responded with something useful.

Bart said...

Hey, Darlene! So it looks like you would broaden the scope of OTA, by including citizen inputs? Good! Like I said, I've signed the petition (though I'll probably regret not unchecking the box to get sent other junk pile is large enough).

Happy cheering,


Unknown said...

Thanks for your thoughtful commentary about OTA. I'd like to tell you about a new website that was launched today by the Federation of American Scientists.

The OTA Archive allows the public to access over 720 reports and documents produced by OTA during its 23 year history. In the video section there is a new interview with Congressman Rush Holt, who explains why he has been leading the effort to revive OTA. He also describes some current policy issues that OTA could address.

The Archive will track efforts to bring back OTA, and individuals can subscribe to receive RSS feeds or email updates as new material is posted. FAS recently received hundreds of historical documents about OTA that have not been available to the public previously, and plan to highlight them in a regular “Document of the Day” feature. The website also includes a new search engine that allows users to quickly and easily find specific content in OTA reports.

Your recent piece on the OTA has already been linked to by our site. We’d appreciate it if you would visit the OTA Archive today and publicize it on your blog. FAS will be happy to host or link to any additional documents or commentary related to the OTA. Use the contact tab at the top of the site to send us your comments.

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Bart said...


I've got no idea what you're asking about, sorry.