Saturday, May 02, 2009

Additional Thoughts About Reviving the Office of Technology Assessment

Darlene the Science Cheerleader sent the following response to my suggested legislative language for reinstating the Office of Technology Assessment:


Thanks for getting this going. I'm in full support of the language but I'd like to see more emphasis on opportunities for "public debate" and participation at the ground level as policies are crafted. See the Danish Board of Technology's legislative language:

Love to hear your thoughts...

What's interesting to me is that Denmark's Board of Technology language/reason for existing is quite similar to mine. Here's theirs:

According to the Act, the Danish Board of Technology has four main goals:
(1) to monitor the technological development;
(2) to carry out comprehensive Technology Assessments of the possibilities of technology and the consequences for society and the individual citicen;
(3) to initiate and perform technology assessment studies independently;
(4) to communicate the results of the work to Parliament and to the various decision-makers in society and to the Danish population to support and stimulate a public debate on technology.

Here's mine:

The Congress hereby reinstates the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to
    • Scientific or technical issues of public interest, including their extent and primary and secondary impacts--positive and negative;
    • Known and potential sources of those issues;
    • Known and potential mitigations and solutions to problems;
    • Study methodology, figures of merit, bases of estimates, relevant equations and experiments, and results;
    • Known and potential impacts--positive and negative--of proposed solutions,
      --Technical impacts, including but not limited to maturity of the science involved, technology readiness level, and research & development needs;
      --Economic impacts, including but not limited to primary and secondary research and development costs, taxation or regluatory costs, equipment costs, and profits;
      --Legal, regulatory, and other governmental impacts, including including but not limited to new laws/regulations, reinstatement of defunct laws, stricter enforcement of existing laws, creating, restructuring, or closing government agencies, or striking down of existing legislation or regulations; and
      --Potential societal, moral, philosophical, and cultural impacts.

Upon researching and collecting the associated information of a given issue, the OTA shall then:

  • Report results, including minority opinion(s), to Congress in plain English;
  • Offer supporting testimony before Congress, if requested;
  • Document and archive reports in the Library of Congress and publicly
    accessible outlets.

Nice to know I was in the ballpark, anyway.

The tricky part, which Dar noted was missing somewhat from my mission statement, is a specific statement or mechanism for including public participation in any OTA debate. Perhaps a good place to state would be in the "whereas" statement/introduction, which is usually where the philosophical rationale for a law is stated. Say, something like this:

"Whereas the Congress recognizes that the importance of science and technology to the future of this nation;

this body will be required to vote on issues relating to the legalization, regulation, or taxation of new science and technology;

the people of the United States should have the right to have their voices heard and concerns directly included in any decisions regarding science and technology policy;

and no other body currently advises the Congress on these issues to the level necessary for informed decision making, ...

That might work. However, public participation presents challenges. These include:

  • A web site, while useful for 72 percent of American households, would still leave the 18 percent who do not have internet access--or, possibly, other electronic means of communication--without a voice. How do we reach them? Nationwide public "town hall" meetings? You won't catch everyone, but it's a start.
  • How should OTA filter public responses? Obviously profanity and spam would have to be excluded. What about comments that are not germane? For example, they ask for inputs on global warming, and someone posts a comment about nanotechnology that, while interesting, has nothing to do with global warming policy. Delete it? What about comments that are off the radar? OTA seeks public input on nanotechnology, and the respondent wants to know when we're going to release the aliens we have held prisoner in Area 51. Delete? Ignore? Include?
  • Another thing, which will drive my more science-minded friends nuts, but means a great deal to my churchgoing friends: if we're going to address moral issues, that will mean accepting comments from people who might not know a lot about the technical/scientific theory involved in X report, but who know enough to realize that it violates a fundamental tenet of their faith. This sort of thing means that religiously minded people will, indeed, have a voice in the political decisions affecting science and technology policy, which is necessary if we're going to continue to have a government that represents the interests of everyone.

    For example, one of the first things President Obama did right out of the gate (March 9, 2009) was reverse President Bush's policy on federal funding of stem cell research. Here's the exact language he used:

It is a difficult and delicate balance. Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view.

But after much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. The majority of Americans – from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs – have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research. That the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided.

This might sound like calm, reasoned statesmanship, but when you get right down to it, the president said, "I hear what the other side is saying, but I'm overruling you." And that, as they say, was that. Where was the open debate there? This is one of the exact situations that should be addressed by OTA: to prevent arbitrary decisions from above without any form of public debate.

  • Is there to be any minimum threshold of experience, education, or interest for citizens commenting on science and technology issues? Ideally, there shouldn't be. However, let's say the town hall meetings do take place, and an OTA panel hears from some folks who have no idea what the heck they're talking about? My more elitist colleagues might say, "No way!" I say, "You might as well let in everybody." After all, if we're not going to have any minimum standards for voters--like education, property, ability to speak English, or legal ID--except for being a warm body over the age of 18, then we're going to have to keep the standards for who speaks to the OTA at the same level. That, or go back and rescind the 26th Amendment and modify a couple others as well.
  • Given the previous bullet, one might as well establish a "public notice" clause in the OTA legislation, which would say something like this:

    "As part of soliciting public comments on study topics, the OTA shall post a public notice on a publicly available government web site, which shall accept germane commentary from voting citizens on the designated up to 30 calendar days from the posting of the notice.
    "In addition, the OTA shall make available to the press public notices containing the exact language and deadline noted in the web site notice.
    "Furthermore, on topics of particular national interest, the OTA may convene public hearings at a minimum of 10 non-contiguous states to ensure that individuals without internet access are granted a forum for expressing their views."

How's that?


Bartacus said...

I just realized that making OTA hearings available to "the press" would be nearly useless if they go out of business completely. What to do about people who prefer hard copy? Carrier snails? Giant parrots? The world wonders.

Science Cheerleader said...

That's more like it, Bart! Keep in mind that not every issue will or should require public input. In fact, the majority of OTA studies will not be appropriate for public debate. Perhaps one of the first tasks the new OTA should take on is "how public participation can best be incorporated". There are lots of academic papers written about best practices for public participation. David Guston (colleague on ScienceDebate, prof at ASU)has authored a few including a recent on on nanotech and public participation. The Loka Institute has spent decades on this issue. The Founder of Loka, Dick Sclove, is an active member of our OTA facebook page. And ResearchAmerica and AmericaSpeaks have produced plenty of consensus conferences, etc, on national and local levels, tied to policy. The executive branch will lead by example.
I'm less concerned about how and when public participation will be incorporated into an OTA...more concerned that an OTA might be reopened without a formal statement "promising" to make best faith efforts to take citizen input into account on major areas of science/technology policy...