Under the depressing headline, "Technology Assessment Faces Ax," Science magazine (9 December 1994, p. 1636) states that "Congress' Office of Technology Assessment may be an early victim of the new Republican majority's efforts to cut spending and shrink government. Last week, Republican senators endorsed a recommendation that OTA be abolished, a move that would save $22 million a year.... Although a final decision may not come for months, the threat to OTA is serious, say political observers." Furthermore, "OTA's prospects may be even worse in the House, where Speaker Newt Gingrich favors steep cuts in the overall operating budget of Congress."
Abolishing or severely curtailing the OTA would be an economic, social, and scientific disaster. Although the agency is funded at a modest $22 million, the OTA's hard-headed advice helps Congress to save the nation billions of dollars every year. The OTA is exactly what the nation needs to help find our way in an age of rapid social change driven primarily by science and technology. The nation needs more OTA's, not less.
And, because the nation needs the OTA, science needs it. As Barbara Mikulski, George Brown, and other astute observers of the politics of science have pointed out, science is in trouble today partly because it hasn't paid enough attention to its social responsibilities. To a certain extent, such painful experiences as the downfall of the Superconducing Super Collider stem from the narrow focus of scientists on their individual research to the exclusion of broader social and educational concerns. Science needs the OTA because the OTA acts so very directly to fulfill this obligation that science has to society. In fact, science needs more OTA's even more than the nation needs them.
Another physicist, APS former president Lewis Branscomb, who is a member of OTA's advisory panel, said in the Science article, "Now that [the OTA] is threatened, I hope the scientific community can get people stirred up to support it." APS President C. Kumar N. Patel sent a letter urging the retention of the OTA to key congressional leaders (see "In Brief", APS News, April 1995), which spelled out some of the reasons for retaining the OTA, but the APS membership at large needs to get stirred up about this as well.
It would be a tragedy for our nation, as well as an insult to the scientific community, to lose the very organization that represents our most successful effort to apply the knowledge and methods of science to America's most important issues. And we, as scientists, will be neglecting our social responsibility to the nation and to the world if we let it happen.
Art Hobson is a professor of physics at the University of Arkansas and edits the newsletter of the APS Forum on Physics and Society. A slightly different version of this article appeared in the April 1995 issue of that newsletter (Vol. 24, No. 2).
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