Volume 24, Number 2 April 1995


APS President's Letter Regarding the OTA

The Honorable Ron Packard, Chairman
House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee
United States House of Representatives
H-218 Capitol Building
Washington, DC 20515-6015

Dear Mr. Chairman:

I am writing on behalf of the Executive Board of the American Physical Society, whose membership includes 42,000 physicists in industry, academia and national laboratories, to emphasize the importance to Congress of access to independent, high quality scientific and technical analysis. For more than twenty years, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) has provided such analysis and policy options to the Congress. Thus I urge Congress to retain OTA and to maximize OTA's effectiveness in providing Members of Congress with objective, non-partisan reports.

As America looks to the 21st century, science and technology will play an increasing role in public policy issues. It is crucial for Members of Congress to have accurate, independent, and timely assessments of the complex and often specialized matters that will vitally affect the lives of Americans. Congress created OTA in 1972 to meet such a need. The National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering supported the formation of OTA at that time and have recently reaffirmed their support.

Oversight by the joint, bipartisan Technology Assessment Board provides the greatest assurance that OTA's studies maintain objectivity. This oversight and OTA's use of non- partisan, expert advisory boards drawn from industry and academia have been central to the success of its activities.

While OTA's central purpose is to advise Congress, its reports have also served to advance public understanding of a broad range of technical issues, a role that will only be enhanced by the electronic information revolution. High quality assessments of scientific and technical issues will be of ever increasing importance to Congress and the public at large in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century.

C. Kumar N. Patel
President, The American Physical Society

The Office of Technology Assessment: An Endangered Species Worth Saving

[This article is reprinted, with permission, from IEEE Spectrum, February 1995.]

In the stampede on Capitol Hill to streamline and downsize government, a rare and beautiful small flower is about to be trampled by thundering hooves. Most of the Congressional herd have nothing against flowers, but many members are new and have had little occasion to study Congressional botany. Others are so preoccupied with the dust, excitement, and difficulty of keeping their footing that they have little time to think about small flowers.

For those unfamiliar with the US Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, or OTA, my comparing it to a precious flower may seem silly hyperbole. But in government, a carefully balanced analysis of complex technical issues is far too rare, and OTA stands as a unique bipartisan source of balanced technical advice for the committees of both the House and the Senate. Indeed, OTA offers a model that has been studied and emulated by national legislatures and parliaments around the world.

Despite these successes, OTA is in trouble. In order to trim a modest $20 million from the $2 billion budget of the legislative branch, there has been serious talk about eliminating OTA. And even if the agency is left in place, it could be crippled by a massive reduction of its budget to half or even less. Since most of the budget is used to pay the salaries of 200 staffers, lower funds could translate into the firing of key people.

Doing technology assessment in the politically charged climate of Capitol Hill is no easy task. You cannot research partisan conclusions and expect to survive. At the same time, you need to produce analysis that helps members make decisions. After some initial fumbling and a few years of groping for the right style, OTA hit its stride about 15 years ago and has been performing superbly ever since.

An OTA report seldom settles a matter; how best to make complex value and policy choices is not a technical question. But OTA frequently manages to frame the problem and spell out the options in a coherent and balanced fashion that supports the subsequent debate. Often these reports work rather like stipulations in a lawsuit. They lay out a basic factual framework that all the parties in the debate agree to share as a starting point. Indeed, it is not uncommon for partisans on opposite sides of an issue to refer to the same OTA report. On complex technical policy issues, nontechnical and semi-technical members and their staffs need such support to identify what the key issues are, so that the political debate may be confined to what is scientifically accurate and technically feasible.

Why is there talk of eliminating or dramatically cutting the agency if its has been so successful? The most important reason involves what social scientists call a "tragedy of the commons." Most members of Congress who know about OTA agree that it does first-rate work. But, faced with a choice between cutting their own staff, and the staff of committees on which they serve, or cutting general support agencies that help all of Congress, most members will look out for themselves. If the resulting congressional decisions are a little less reasoned, or a little less technically realistic, that's tough.

OTA is also at risk because it works mainly for committees, not individual members. Since most committee chairmanships in Congress have just turned over, many new chairmen with little experience of OTA do not yet understand how important and useful it can be. Also, some members of Congress might find it politically advantageous to be able to say they had killed off a whole agency. As one of the smallest agencies around, OTA is particularly vulnerable.

Moreover, despite the fact that OTA has been carefully bipartisan in its activities, some partisan considerations still exist. Ted Kennedy played an important role in getting OTA established. And even though Republicans like Ted Stevens, William Roth, Amory Houghton, and Orrin Hatch also strongly supported the agency, its identification with the liberal Kennedy in today's conservative climate offers a powerful, if erroneous, political target.

It also does not help that OTA's former, and most successful, director, Jack Gibbons, has gone on to a highly visible position as science advisor in the Clinton White House and that he took several OTA staffers with him when he moved.

Finally, a handful of senators and congressmen, interested in getting the Strategic Defense Initiative program restarted, may remember that OTA was one of the first organizations to raise technical concerns about that project. The fact that those concerns proved justified may not loom large in their current thinking.

Threatening OTA's budget is not just a Republican game. Under a Democrat- controlled Congress, the agency has been level funded in real terms for much of the past decade. In the first few years that this occurred, the agency reduced the impact through such improvements in efficiency as the introduction of modern desktop publishing. But then the budget squeeze really began to hurt. OTA studies that once devoted as much as half their budgets to field work and contracts for small supporting analyses by expert consultants now must devote as much as 80 percent to simply paying staff salaries. In short, problems in keeping OTA alive and well are not new, but only recently has the agency been put on the endangered list. Unless a big effort is mounted to educate new members that careful analyses are essential to making informed decisions about technical matters, OTA could be seriously damaged or destroyed.

Perhaps the best way to understand how OTA works is to follow the life cycle of a study. The agency is overseen by a bipartisan joint committee of the two houses of Congress. Called the Technology Assessment Board, the committee must approve all studies, and can also initiate them. More commonly though, requests come from the chairmen of other committees who pose such questions as, "What should we do about the future of US space launch capabilities?" or "What are the policy implications of the electronic superhighway?" These questions led to several useful OTA reports.

These requests rarely show up out of the blue. Senior OTA staffers and senior staff of congressional committees confer on a regular basis, discuss evolving congressional concerns, and explore what areas are most in need of analyses to support further decision- making. Often, several related requests will be woven together into a single study.

In contrast to studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences complex, OTA studies are done by small teams drawn from a full-time professional staff of about 140. Over half these people hold Ph.D.s in a variety of fields, including science engineering, and various areas of social science.

In addition to its core staff, every OTA study has an outside committee of advisors who meet several times during the course of the study. Advisors are drawn widely form the many groups that have knowledge or interests related to the topic at hand. The staff's job is to listen carefully to all the different perspectives and insights the committee brings, and then to weave them into the final report in a balanced way.

While this may sound like a recipe for vanilla-flavored pabulum, in fact it usually yields a spicy, interestingly textured product. OTA reports are lively, comprehensive, and attractively packed. Full reports may range up to a couple hundred pages, but are always accompanied by both a condensed version and a one-page summary.

The reports place great emphasis on accurately simplifying and communicating the key ideas on complex technical topics in words that the semi-technical and non-technical members and their staffs can understand. They are also widely used in the executive branch, in think tanks, and in universities all over the world. OTA uses various methods to balance its treatments while retaining substance. One of the most effective involves the use of "if, then" clauses: "If Congress wishes to achieve such and such, then it should do so and so."

Engineers are often the most vociferous critics of congressional actions that are at odds with sound science and good technical practice. As such, we have a special obligation to work to preserve a strong and viable OTA. Whatever our individual political persuasions may be, we all believe that the Congress must be well informed when it takes actions that involve technology. A healthy OTA offers one of the best assurances that this will happen. Individually, and as a community, engineers must make it clear to Congress that OTA is one endangered species that should be preserved and nurtured.

M. Granger Morgan
Head of the Dept of Engineering and Public Policy
and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA

The Nation Needs the OTA

Under the depressing headline "Technology Assessment Faces Ax," Science (9 December 1994, p. 1636) states that "Congress's 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. The proposal, which took OTA officials by surprise, was drafted by a task force led by Senators Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Connie Mack (R-FL). ...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 Superconducting 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.

In 1991, the Forum on Physics and Society gave its Szilard Award to physicist John Gibbons, who was OTA director at that time and for 13 years before becoming science adviser to President Clinton. According to the citation, the award was given to Gibbons "for leading and greatly strengthening the OTA, an institution that has produced balanced, thoughtful, and influential assessments of public policy issues dealing with science and technology."

Another physicist, APS Fellow Lewis Branscomb, a member of OTA's scientific advisory panel, states in the Science article, "Now that [the OTA] is threatened, I hope the scientific community can get people stirred up to support it."

Our Forum needs to get stirred up about this. Both the above article by M. Granger Morgan, and the letter from APS President C. Kumar N. Patel, spell out some of the reasons for retaining the OTA.

It would be a tragedy for our nation, as well as an insult to the scientific community, to lose the very organization that represents perhaps 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