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Hot off the presses: “Science, Technology, & Democracy: Building a Modern Congressional Technology Assessment Office”

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.

GAO to do some OTA work

On Jan 29, The Government Accountability Office (GAO) announced the launch of a new Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics (STAA) team to provide Congress with "thorough and balanced analysis of technological and scientific developments that affect our society, environment, and economy." GAO had announced its intention to set up this new STAA team back in December of 2018.

This new team will, apparently, serve some of the same functions that The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) once served.

The Office of Technology Assessment was created by Congress in 1972 (2 USC 472) "within and responsible to the legislative branch." Its stated purpose was "to provide early indications of the probable beneficial and adverse impacts of the applications of technology and to develop other coordinate information which may assist the Congress." The idea was that Congress did not want to rely on think tanks or the Executive Branch agencies for an understanding of complex scientific issues. But, in 1995, Congress simply stopped funding OTA. (For background see, Science and Congress, by Adam Keiper.) OTA documents are archived by the University of North Texas Libraries at the CyberCemetery.

Since at least 2009, there have been attempts to fund OTA again. There has been some recent speculation that Congress might be more amenable to letting GAO take on the role that OTA once had. (GAO is "an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress.") Indeed, GAO has been offering technology assessments since at least 2002. In GAO’s announcement, they say that they routinely provide analysis of how federal agencies manage and employ science and technology, such as regenerative medicine, 5G wireless communication, and quantum computing.

GAO says that the new STAA team will expand its support to Congress by:

  • Conducting technology assessments and providing technical services
  • Auditing science and technology programs and initiatives to assist in oversight of federal investments in research, development, and advanced manufacturing
  • Compiling and utilizing best practices in engineering sciences, including cost, schedule, and technology readiness assessments
  • Establishing an audit innovation lab to explore, pilot, and deploy new advanced analytic capabilities, conduct research in information assurance, and explore emerging technologies that will impact future audit practices.

See also:

At launch, GAO combined existing in-house technology staffers and experts for STAA. But Persons said GAO will make outside hires, taking advantage of direct hire authority for technical positions and the Intergovernmental Personnel Authority, which allows government agencies to offer term appointments to academics and researchers at universities and nonprofits.

Science and Congress

Take a few minutes away from politics and read this fascinating article! One would think that Congress would want to have good solid scientific advice and not have to rely on think tanks or the Executive Branch agencies for an understanding of complex scientific issues. Well, in 1972 Congress passed and President Nixon signed a bill that set up the The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to do just that. Twenty years later, Congress withdrew all funding for the OTA and has never given it a penny since. (Okay. politics is involved…. Sorry.)

Why did this happen? What are the arguments for and against? What lessons can we learn about agencies just being denied funding? Read on!

And don’t forget to visit the collection of OTA documents at the UNT CyberCemetery!

Congress has information, needs more knowledge

New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) has released a new report that The U.S. Congress lacks “shared expert knowledge capacity” and that has “created a critical weakness in our democratic process.” The report says that Congress depends on outdated and in some cases antiquated systems of information referral, sorting, communicating, and convening.”

  • Congress’ Wicked Problem [announcement and summary].

    This paper does not put forward a simple recipe to fix these ailments, but argues that the absence of basic knowledge management in our legislature is a critical weakness. Congress struggles to make policy on complex issues while it equally lacks the wherewithal to effectively compete on substance in today’s 24 hour news cycle. This paper points out that Congress is not so much venal and corrupt as it is incapacitated and obsolete. And, in its present state, it cannot serve the needs of American democracy in the 21st Century.

  • Congress’ Wicked Problem, Seeking Knowledge Inside the Information Tsunami, By Lorelei Kelly, New America Foundation, (December 2012). [PDF, 6 pages]

    This paper distinguishes between information and knowledge: Members of Congress and their staff do not lack access to information. Yet information backed by financial interests and high-decibel advocacy is disproportionately represented. Most importantly, they lack the institutional wisdom that can be built via a deliberate system that feeds broadly inclusive information through defined processes of review, context, comparison and evaluation of the implications for the nation as a whole. Concurrently, Congress also needs more expert judgment available to it during the policymaking process, which, for the purposes of this paper, means a focus on development of knowledge.

A New Push for the Office of Technology Assessment

Some good news for those who value public policy based on well informed science, “the possibility of reconstituting OTA itself is gaining new momentum.”

Steven notes that there is a comprehensive archive of OTA publications from 1972-1995 available on the Federation of American Scientists web site.

There is also, of course, the “ OTA Legacy” collection at the University of North Texas Libraries, “CyberCemetary.”