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By Barrett Ripin and Anthony Fainberg
"In politics it often seems that perceptions are facts, and facts are negotiable," asserted Rush Holt in an APS News Back Page (October 1999) shortly after his initial election to Congress. Everyone knows that there are many factors influencing the fate of legislation, including facts. Momentous national decisions loom that carry long-term and, perhaps, irreversible, consequences. Many issues are steeped in complex and confusing science and technology issues. To provide for a more rational basis to make such far-reaching decisions, Rep. Holt, on behalf of over 40 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle, introduced a bipartisan bill [H.R. 2148] in June to reestablish the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, OTA.
True, Congress certainly does not lack sources of information. A myriad of government entities, the National Academy of Science's National Research Council (NAS/NRC), lobbyists and interest groups, expert witnesses and advisors, including physicists, think-tanks, etc. offer information and diverse compelling arguments. Congress's problems are dealing with information overload, minimizing political biases and perceptions thereof, and not knowing what you don't know.
Why is OTA needed, given other respected sources? The NAS/NRC, government agency and other blue-ribbon panels certainly provide valuable perspectives. However, most such studies are undertaken and authored by panels drawn from actively involved experts with various preexisting interests. Resulting reports and recommendations tend to be consensus-driven and are often less than crisp, accommodating rather than contrasting varying interest elements, and, on occasion, leave open questions of objectivity.
As useful as current institutions are, many experts see an essential, if complementary, role for reports marked with OTA's brand of non-partisanship. Members and their staffs and advisors need a source they can trust for critical, impartial analyses that delineate serious issues from fluff, weigh pro/con arguments, and lay out long-term consequences of various options. Even the NAS lacks the mechanisms employed by OTA (many of them by statute) to assure a nonpartisan approach at every stage of a study. Moreover, OTA, whose studies are authored by staff, can be generally less expensive and faster.
OTA was established in the Nixon era to fill the need for independent scientific and technical advice to Congress. The institutional safeguards for bipartisan oversight incorporated by OTA, along with two decades of results, brought a reputation for competent, non-partisan, technical analyses that was unmatched in government. Other nations rushed to set up similar institutions, which, ironically, still exist.
OTA fell victim to the Gingrich Congress' zeal to make a show of reducing government by axing a few small sacrificial lambs. In addition, many felt it was OTA's independence and credibility that were resented. OTA did enjoy support from most Democrats as well as many Republicans, such as Reps. Weldon (PA), Hyde and Houghton and Senators Stevens, Bond, Grassley and Hatch. OTA survived the conservative House, but was narrowly killed in the Senate. The Conference Committee sealed the demise by only one vote. OTA was closed in 1995.
During its two decades of existence, OTA produced widely-hailed, landmark reports on such diverse topics as nuclear waste disposal, alternative cancer treatments, genetic engineering, infertility, space policy, costs of mitigating the greenhouse effect, office automation, technology and the handicapped. Interested readers can peruse the full set of OTA reports archived at: http://www.wws.princeton.edu/~ota/ns20/pubs_f.cfm. Would the nation not benefit today with in-hand independent analyses of stem-cell research, energy policy, CO2 emissions, the relative funding of research in biosciences to other fields, or improved voting technologies, to name a few?
Was OTA ideal and, if reincarnated, should it be a clone of its first life? Clearly not. OTA had a number of real and perceptual problems. In addition, the needs and political landscape have changed over the years. Sometimes, OTA's response time from study inception to report was indeed too slow. Complaints of poor access by members of the minority party, partisanship in the selection of topics, and analyses undermining political agendas were also heard. Some criticisms simply stemmed from a misconception of the role of OTA, which was to anticipate pivotal topics prior to emergence of pending legislation. Like all attempts to predict the future, such a goal is difficult to achieve. Independent observers assert that, on the whole, OTA, under Jack Gibbons and its last director, Roger Herdman, went a long way to respond to Congress's real-time needs while maintaining rigor and objectivity.
A revival of OTA, or the functional equivalent, to be successful, will need the strong bipartisan support it used to have. It should incorporate some new procedures that both speed up comprehensive studies as well as assure the best guidance possible for pending legislative action. We think that it is imperative to restore this resource to Congress so that far-reaching decisions are based more on fact than perception.
Barrett Ripin, former APS Associate Executive Officer, has a private consultancy, Research Applied, in Bethesda, MD. Anthony Fainberg was a former Senior Analyst at OTA and a former Chair of the APS Forum on Physics and Society.
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