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By Jonathan Behrens
Congress has faced increasing pressure, from inside and out, to improve its ability to act on matters in which science and technology (S&T) play a critical role. To meet the demand, the House Appropriations Committee recently advanced legislation that would provide $6 million to reestablish the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a research group that provided S&T advice to Congress before it was defunded in 1995.
Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is currently increasing its S&T analysis capabilities in response to separate legislation enacted last year. That legislation also asked the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to commission a study of other ways Congress could augment its advice channels, including by reestablishing OTA.
While the CRS study has not yet been released, the new legislation reflects the conviction of some House Democrats that the further step of restoring OTA is warranted. Whether the Republican-controlled Senate will support the proposal remains to be seen.
Following the dissolution of OTA, GAO became a newly important source of S&T advice to Congress and has undertaken technology assessments in addition to its usual audits of federal S&T programs.
Earlier this year, GAO created a new Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team that consolidated its S&T-related activities, and last month it released a plan for expanding the unit. GAO intends to increase the STAA staff from 49 to 70 by this October and have up to 140 employees in subsequent years, depending on the level of demand from Congress.
The head of GAO, Gene Dodaro, has said expanding the STAA team is a high priority for the agency. Acknowledging the options before Congress at a recent budget hearing, he remarked, “I know there's been a debate in the past about whether to reinstate OTA or provide more resources to GAO. I'm here to assure you that we're prepared, if you decide to go that way, to handle those additional responsibilities.”
Congress established OTA in 1974 to serve as a source of nonpartisan S&T expertise. The office had about 150 staff and an annual budget of $22 million when it was defunded in 1995 as part of the new Republican majority’s broad spending cuts. At its height, OTA released around 50 reports annually on a variety of topics, such as the effectiveness of energy research programs, the feasibility of President Reagan’s missile defense initiative, and policy options for addressing climate change.
The latest efforts in the House to revive OTA build on two decades of attempts. In the 2000s, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), a physicist who now heads the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was a leading advocate for restoring the office. Since then, Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), another physicist, has picked up the mantle and recently partnered with Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) to build support.
In an op-ed on May 1, Takano and freshman Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL) laid out a new case for OTA, arguing that neither GAO nor CRS could fill OTA’s shoes. “In the ecosystem of congressional support agencies CRS summarizes, GAO evaluates, and the OTA anticipates,” they wrote.
Budget documentation released by the House Appropriations Committee echoes the sentiment that OTA would play a unique role. It states, “Congress does not have adequate resources available for the in-depth, high level analysis of fast-breaking technology developments and their public policy implications that was formerly provided by OTA. While the GAO has increased its technology assessment activities attempting to fill that gap, the structure and culture of GAO somewhat constrain its ability to replicate OTA."
The author is a Science Policy Analyst with FYI.
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