This new report entitled “Science, Technology, & Democracy: Building a Modern Congressional Technology Assessment Office” just dropped from Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. We think this is extremely timely and important given the state of the world and the great need for far-reaching US public policy on science and technology — “Today, Congress has a far diminished understanding of technology in a world where technology is ubiquitous.” Since 1972, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) served Congress by providing authoritative, non-partisan advice on science and technology (S&T) issues. But the office was unfortunately defunded in 1995 as part of a largely symbolic cost-savings effort according to this CRS report.
Now Zach Graves and Daniel Schuman have written this report, recommending that the OTA — actually a better OTA! — be restarted. If anyone knows this space, it’s Graves and Shuman. Graves is a Technology and Democracy Fellow at the Ash Center, and Schuman is policy director at Demand Progress Education Fund. Please read this important report!
Graves, Zach, and Daniel Schuman. 2020. “Science, Technology, & Democracy: Building a Modern Congressional Technology Assessment Office” (also available as PDF download).
This paper offers recommendations and a road map for the future success of a restarted technology assessment office in Congress. We look at three potential approaches: (1) Building up the Government Accountability Office (GAO)’s OTA-like capacity in its newly created Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team, and giving it greater resources and structural autonomy; (2) Reviving OTA but updating its procedures and statutory authority; and (3) A hybrid approach wherein both GAO and a new OTA develop different capacities and specializations. (Spoiler: we favor the third approach.)
The next section of this paper reviews what OTA was and how it functioned. The third section discusses the history of and rationale for the defunding of OTA, other cuts to Congress’s S&T capacity, and why this congressional capacity and expertise matter for democracy. The fourth section reviews efforts to revive OTA and other efforts to build new congressional S&T capacity. The fifth section discusses the political landscape for building S&T capacity, including the legislative branch appropriations process and the different political constituencies for S&T. The final section offers a detailed discussion of various structural recommendations for a new congressional technology assessment office, including an expanded STAA unit in GAO, and a new OTA.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.