In a United
States Senate hearing on bioterrorism this past November, various experts
told the Senate of the new problems that chemical and biological weapons
might pose for American society. This was, of course, just a few months
after the tragic events of September 11 and while nearly all of Washington
was deathly frightened of anthrax-tainted letters.
the horrible statistics cited at the hearing was that 100 kilograms
of anthrax spread over Washington could kill between one and three million
people under the right conditions. In contrast, a 1-megaton nuclear
warhead would kill between 750,000 and 1.9 million people. These grave
facts came from a study conducted by Congress's own Office of Technology
Assessment (OTA), and in the weeks and months after the anthrax scare,
government and media cited its grave warnings. Clearly, in the rush
to sort out fact from fiction, rumor from real scientific fact, Congress
was using reliable information from a group that was charged with studying
the real ramifications of bioterrorism.
was only one problem. The study was performed by OTA in 1993. Congress
killed OTA in 1995. The upshot of the demise of OTA is that mechanisms
are no longer in place for Congress to provide real scientific study
for its members during a period in our history when our country's
pressing issuesweapons of mass destruction, stem cell research,
electric deregulation, information technologies, the irradiation of
mailhave heavy scientific, as well as political, components.
been more than six years since OTA was unceremoniously axed by a zealous
Congress looking to implement House Speaker Newt Gingrich's budget
cuts contained within his Contract With America. But there
is a growing movement in both Congress and in the scientific community
to resurrect OTA in some form or fashion. U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ)
has introduced a bill that would restart OTA after its years of dormancy.
The Senate has appropriated $500,000 to study the best way to bring
an OTA-like agency back to Capitol Hill.
will supply Congress with a powerful tool that will allow us to keep
current with rapidly-developing technologies such as stem cell research
and bioterrorism, says Holt, a former physicist. People
are still using past OTA reports as part of their research. The high
quality analysis that the OTA can provide will benefit us for decades
to come. This will be a wise investment in our future.
years, many scientists and politicians now agree that OTA did a pretty
good job as a scientific advisor to Congress. Founded in 1973, the agency
was started by Congress when disputes over the pesticide DDT, an anti-ballistic
missile treaty, and the supersonic aviation debate raged on the Hill.
Unwilling to rely solely on reports from the Nixon Administration, Congress
decided to form its own advisory group, answerable only to Congress.
By the mid-1990s, OTA had a staff of about 200 and a budget of $20 million.
1995, with Gingrich in charge, Congress was busy cutting numerous governmental
programs. In order to have credibility with voters, Congress needed
to cut some of its own programs. OTA, even though its budget was minuscule
in the entire budget-cutting scenario, was led to the chopping block.
was that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the Congressional Research
Service (CRS), and the Government Accounting Office (GAO) were more
than adequate scientific advisors to Congress. But each group has a
different purview: GAO and CRS did not have the scientific basis or
scientific credentials that OTA had, and the NAS is geared more toward
specific recommendations on technical issues. OTA, on the other hand,
was charged with presenting Congress with a range of public-policy options,
often weighing in political considerations. Furthermore, OTA was the
only agency uniquely focused on the implications of technological change.
of how the NAS and OTA would approach problems can be seen in an early
1990s study of how to improve automotive fuel economy. The National
Research Council (part of the NAS) delivered a report that studied the
feasibility of various technical standards and recommended the standard
that was scientifically the most valid. The OTA report, on the other
hand, gave Congress a range of options, weighing the tradeoffs on fuel
economy with economic issues, and the willingness of the public to go
along with such reforms. The difference, as mandated by Congress, was
that OTA would always give a range of options and, in so doing, would
extend beyond purely technical considerations.
to OTAto consider policy ramifications but itself strive to be
nonpoliticalmay have helped in its demise. By the time the Gingrich
freshmen reached Congress, many felt that OTA had overstepped its bounds,
particularly in its reports on sensitive political issues such as the
anti-ballistic missile defense system and healthcare reform. And the
mood of the countryspecifically a conservative Congresswas
a mistrust of the intellectual and academic makeup of OTA. Some in Congress
saw redundancy, but others questioned the agency's autonomy.
Morgan, chairman of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy
at Carnegie Mellon University, held a well-publicized workshop in June
2001 to discuss ways to recreate OTA. No consensus was reached by the
100 or so who attended, though all agreed that an OTA-like agency could
serve Congress in ways that are needed in the current climate.
level of scientific content that Congress faces on a daily decision-making
basis continues to grow, Morgan says. But you can't
set up aprivate version of OTA, because it won't have relevant
standing. OTA did some things very well, and one of the things it did
was to make sure every stakeholder on a particular issue was heard.
The range of political issues were represented, but in a way that was
bipartisan and neutral. Morgan says a book representing the views
presented at the June workshop will be published in 2002 by Resources
for the Future Press.
the major arguments against refunding OTA (it was never really abolished,
only defunded), is that the agency was perceived by some in Congress
as taking too long with their studies to be of much use. Many in Congress
felt they could not wait a year for a study when a hearing needed to
held within months. You need a rapid response to a request for
information, and OTA was often too slow, said U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers
(R-Mich) in a recent interview.
Blair, the executive director on engineering and physical sciences at
NAS and a former assistant director at OTA, says the argument about
speed never held much currency. OTA may not have been good at
dealing with the hot-button issues, but that was not really its mandate.
The studies were designed to be used now and in the future. It takes
time to do comprehensive studies, and some of them, quite frankly, cannot
be done within the rhythms of Congressional hearings.
Holt's bill to make its way through Congress unscathed. Tight budgets
and shrinking programs will prevent many in Congress from refunding
an agency that they voted to kill just over six years ago. And some
suggest an OTA-like agency that would be leaner and quicker in their
studies and funding. I would like to see them recreate an agency
that has more-focused reports in a shorter time frame, says Norman
Vig, a political science professor at Carleton College (Minn.) who has
studied OTA and like institutions serving governments in Europe. Most
studies could be completed in three to six months, the longest should
last no more than a year. Some might be contracted out. You could probably
get by with 30-40 analysts and a budget of about $10 million.
Grodsky, a law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School in
Minneapolis and a former OTA analyst, thinks that OTA should be resurrected
with the same funding and staffing levels as before. OTA attracted
some unbelievable people, and part of the reason for that was its independence,
Grodsky says. OTA was at least 10 years ahead of its time. Its
studies are quoted today as if they were written yesterday. Perhaps
the irony is that OTA died because it was so good at what it did. These
were scientists and social scientists, not politicians. The agency couldn't
defend itself in the highly politicized environment of the 104th Congress.
OTA is resurrected, or some other quasi-scientific advisory group emerges,
most agree that the current climate demands more scientifically informed
elected officials. And few elected officials have the time to become
experts on the digital revolution, new genetic mapping research, or
the events of September 11 and beyond have presented a host of new problems
for Washington, and the ability to understand the problems and the solutions
within a scientific framework is crucial. Having the necessary information
to make those tough decisions, during times of war or times of peace,
seems imperative. The scientific reality is that Congress needs good,
solid advice on these issues. The political reality is that some in
Congress need a way to save face before restarting the Office of Technology
Assessment. That seems to be the tradeoff when science and policy try
to coexist within the same agency.
of course, is to allow scientists to work without political pressure,
and allow the politicians to work without becoming scientific experts.
That seems logical to most, but in the debate over restarting OTA, sometimes
logic is the part of science and politics that gets lost in the debate.
McGraw is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.
He can be reached at dmcgraw@