Monday, July 3, 2017

Congress should reestablish the Office of Technology Assessment now

Now is the time for Congress to reestablish the Office of Technology Assessment.

Back in 1994, swelled with braggadocious pride at their electoral victory in November, House GOP members began their war on science and knowledge and facts by zeroing out the budget of their Office of Technology Assessment, or OTA as it was called, as part of their larger Contract with America.

OTA, created in 1972 to provide the Congress with unbiased assessments of technology and its impact on science and society, lived a peaceful life on Capitol Hill, studying subjects as varied as housing for the elderly, crop substitution strategies in Colombia and Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" proposals. Always a target of conservative ire, the agency was staffed by an unassuming, dedicated mix of scientists, social scientists and policy experts working under the radar of the brighter and hotter debates in Washington. OTA studies took about 18 months to complete and were viewed as the standard bearer for discussion on the topic, whatever the topic may be. The agency cost the tax-payers roughly $22 million a year to operate.

Newt Gingrich, bomb-thrower, agitator and hate merchant, decided that Congress would start its belt tightening by tightening its own belt. Because he couldn't touch the Congressional Research Service, a policy research arm of the Library of Congress, the only sacred cow he could slaughter was OTA. Gingrich's success in cutting OTA pointed out the magnitude of his larger failure. Gingrich backed down when faced with real opposition, but didn't slow down in face of a smaller opponent. In other words, Gingrich was a classic schoolyard bully. Sound familiar?

More importantly though, his actions were an early salvo in the continuing Republican assault on rationality, common sense, intellectual honesty, knowledge and science. By cutting OTA, he put blinders on the U.S. Congress, thereby denying policy makers deeper insight into the meaning and implications of new technology that continues to arrive faster and more furiously every day. 

OTA had a sister agency in the executive branch, the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Located at the White House, and headed up by the president's science advisor, OSTP still is tasked with providing thoughtful analysis for the president as he decides on policy direction in space exploration, energy and climate science, nanotechnology and our national labs, just to name a few. The horrifying recent reports that OSTP's Science Division now has exactly zero employees is a result of the simple fact that adults find it impossible to work for such a degraded man as Donald Trump. Conversely, a man as degraded as Donald Trump has no interest or understanding of what these adults do and therefore no motivation to attract talented people to fill these positions in his White House.

A first step to rectifying this situation is for Congress to reestablish the Office of Technology Assessment now, a bold move that would provide timely, thoughtful, peer-reviewed advice and insight on the most pressing issues of our day. For the right, this will have the added benefit of combatting the accusation that all Republicans are antediluvian flat-earthers and will offset the prevailing belief that rational discourse is the sole purview of the Democratic party. In the meantime, it will make us all safer, and it will help make America great again.

[Editor's note: Author worked at both OTA and OSTP in the 1990s.]