Congressional Ignorance and the OTA

By Seán Finan

“Who is making all these decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of future our children live in? Just some members of Congress? But there’s no more than a handful of them with any background in science at all! … This combustible mixture of ignorance and power is… going to blow up in our faces”.

– Carl Sagan, in interview with Charlie Rose

ota_sealThe Office of Technology Assessment (the “OTA”) was founded in 1972. It was charged by Congress with providing “competent, unbiased information concerning the physical, biological, economic, social and political effects” of new technologies. It made predictions and forecasts about what new developments were likely and distilled the entire assessment into impartial advice and actionable steps for Congress. It was a key source for the government’s development of public policy. It was also a pioneer in citizen engagement: it was among the first of the government agencies to publish its papers online.

During its existence, it published over 750 reports on everything from acid rain to medical waste management to bioterrorism. Despite its successes, it was defunded in 1995.  This move has been compared to “Congress giving itself a lobotomy” (Chris Mooney – Republican War on Science). Chris Mooney argues that defunding the OTA was not so much a budgetary decision as a political move designed to allow the reigning party to recruit partisan scientists who would “scientifically validate” their own policy goals. Readers can examine the reports of the various Presidents’ Councils on Bioethics and draw their own conclusions.

The OTA, in comparison, was particularly well known for avoiding partisan positions and restraining itself to the role of advisor, rather than advocate. Its reports often presented a selection of possible policy decisions, without pushing for a specific one. The intention was simply to provide Congress with enough information to allow them to exercise their political authority to settle the debate.

The success of the office was obvious and the rest of the world took note. After seeking and taking inspiration from the work of the OTA, the EU established the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment network to coordinate the efforts of the various national councils of technology assessment operating across the continent.

The rate of technological development is increasing, and with it, the difficulties faced by ordinary citizens and politicians anticipating these developments. We need an OTA. Some remarks made in 1970 about the utility of such an office at the passage of its originating Bill still carry the ring of relevance;

“Suppose that technology assessment had been an operational concept, say, 20 years ago. Suppose also that something like today’s solid waste problem had been foreseen, and that packaging technology had been the subject of assessment. It is interesting to speculate on the direction that plastic and nonplastic packaging would have taken. This may seem a somewhat trivial example beside some of the potential problem areas now developing – genetic engineering or weather modification, for example.”

We need to bring the Office back. Congress needs an informed adviser on their side to help fight the specter of bad or immoral science. But we don’t need to raise the same body from the dead. We can tweak, improve and birth a hybrid of our own to combat Dr. Frankenstein’s.

Darlene Cavalier popularized the idea of involving “citizen scientists” in a revived Office. Thousands of hobbyists across the country run experiments in their spare rooms and spare time. In fact, the term “hobbyists” may mislead some into thinking that citizen scientists are not serious. Movements like Quantified Self have allowed n=1 experimenters to accumulate real data and engineer real improvement in their lives. It should be remembered that, until very recently, it was citizen-scientists like Francis Bacon or Benjamin Franklin who drove real discovery.

Cavalier wants to take this group, who have become unfortunately silent in the public debate, and bring their voices back into play.

“In short, citizen participation works. It can break the special-interest deadlock, connect government to voters and shed light on important public issues. So why aren’t we mobilizing one of America’s greatest resources?”

Richard Sclove has published a comprehensive report on the successful use of such initiatives in Denmark and a proposal for their introduction here. Sclove argues that the citizens involved in technology assessment do not need to have any active interest in science at all. In Denmark, citizens were essentially taken off the street, given basic information about a scientific issue and asked to make a policy assessment. The introduction to the report highlights the main conclusion:

“Again and again, we found that informed groups of citizens could identify a wide and rich range of issues associated with new technologies, often adding nuances to the views of experts and the policy-making community.”

The very expertise of the “experts” was forcing a narrow focus: experts rarely took considerations outside of their own narrow fields into account. The major benefit of citizen participants was actually their lack of expertise. This allowed them to take a broader view and see problems and considerations invisible to those staring through a microscope. Sclove proposes we name the new initiative ECAST: the Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology network.

The need for good scientific information in the hands of our legislative decision-makers is arguably more pressing now than it was in 1972. The pace of development has quickened to the point where “wait and see” could really mean “wait and suffer the consequences”. With the inauguration bearing down on us, we’ll have to hope that the new President’s intention to revitalize business includes some scope for regulating technology.