Prism Magazine - February 2002
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Where is OTA when you need it?
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WHERE IS OTA? (when you need it)

 

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.

One of 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.

There 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 issues—weapons of mass destruction, stem cell research, electric deregulation, information technologies, the irradiation of mail—have heavy scientific, as well as political, components.

It's 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.

“OTA 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.”

In recent 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.

Budget Victim

But by 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.

The rationale 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.

An example 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.

This charge to OTA—to consider policy ramifications but itself strive to be nonpolitical—may 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 country—specifically a conservative Congress—was a mistrust of the intellectual and academic makeup of OTA. Some in Congress saw redundancy, but others questioned the agency's autonomy.

Granger 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.

“The 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.

One of 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.

But Peter 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.

Few expect 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.”

But Jamie 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.”

Whether 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 bioterrorism.

Clearly, 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.

The solution, 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.

 

Dan McGraw is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.
He can be reached at dmcgraw@ asee.org.

 


 
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