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Michael A. Levi

Brookings Institution scholar offers a way to restore science, technology advice to Congress

June 7, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 23


The demise of the office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995 in a blaze of partisan acrimony has left Congress bereft of technical expertise. Debates on environmental, defense, and homeland security issues are being carried out largely without the scientific and technical shoring they demand.

Because Congress is having to pass judgment on so many technology-based issues, there is growing awareness within the institution that "it needs some technical backup," says Michael A. Levi, a 26-year-old science and technology fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The need for an improved technical ability in Congress isn't about partisan fights," he argues. "Both parties would benefit from having the technical strength to properly oversee the executive branch."

To regain that expertise, some like Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), a Ph.D. physicist, have championed the restoration of OTA. Other lawmakers have claimed existing organizations--the General Accounting Office (GAO), the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and even the independent National Academies--can fill the void.

Levi suggests another course: a new institution for science and technology analysis. Such a group would be staffed by people much like Levi, a Princeton University-trained physicist who is a dissertation shy of a Ph.D. He's been a policy analyst since 2001.

Before coming to Brookings, Levi was director of the Federation of American Scientists' Strategic Security Project. And with another Brookings fellow, Michael E. O'Hanlon, Levi is writing a book on the future of arms control.

Levi suggests that the new group could be created by bringing together scientists and engineers scattered among Congress' existing support agencies. This fairly small group, Levi believes, could operate on a budget of $20 million a year--about the size of OTA's budget at the time of its demise. And unlike OTA, which assessed the implications of technology, Levi says this group should analyze policy issues having significant science and technology content.

Such a group is necessary because, in the vacuum created by the absence of OTA, "Congress is getting its science advice from whichever group steps forward," Levi says. "Democrats generally get their advice from nongovernmental organizations and from academics. Republicans typically get their advice from industry and from conservative think tanks," he explains. Both, he says, get advice from the National Academies and from executive branch agencies.

Unfortunately, Levi says, the advice that lawmakers get often "only reinforces what they already politically believe is true. It's not necessarily dishonest advice, just framed unfairly." As he points out, the "uncertainty associated with the advice" is either overlooked or misunderstood.

"Uncertainty in politics is considered a negative. Uncertainty in science means you're being honest," Levi explains.

That's not to say that the studies produced by Congress' available support agencies offer dishonest advice--it's just limited advice. CRS, for example, "is good at doing detailed reports," Levi says, "but these are not exposed to peer review" and are seldom widely distributed.

Levi says CBO's "technical expertise is limited," and the office will only undertake studies that "have a budgetary hook." The latter constraint, Levi believes, could "drive analysts to frame issues in nonproductive--less than the best possible--ways."

GAO conducts "very in-depth investigations and probably has the best technical capability of any congressional branch agency," Levi says. "But its culture focuses on auditing existing programs, and a technology analysis agency would also need to look more broadly at future options," he adds.

The National Academies, on the other hand, "can do some very good work, but they are very slow and prone to be controlled by the executive branch," which is responsible for much of its funding, Levi observes. Executive branch influence notwithstanding, Levi's bottom line is that the academies are "not a good source for urgent advice."

So why not resuscitate OTA? First of all, this "Republican-controlled Congress is not going to admit that it made a mistake 10 years ago," Levi says. More important, OTA was perceived as "blatantly political, and its demise and much of its life was marred by partisan fighting," he says.

The prevailing perception was that OTA was biased and Democratic-leaning. Levi notes that "up to 90% of staff were Democrats, but that doesn't translate to bias." Most studies were politically neutral, he contends.

Still, he says, there's no need to build a replica of OTA. A leaner, more flexible, more politically diverse organization would probably be better, Levi says.

He believes that being more supple would allow the new analysis group "to do shorter term studies, not the two-year-plus studies OTA did." And perhaps more important--given OTA's rancorous history--having more Republicans on staff would sheathe the organization in "a greater perception of neutrality that would allow it to conduct more internally generated studies," Levi says.

Despite Levi's reasoned arguments for a new advice-giving organization, Congress is likely to take the middle path, if Rep. Holt is any indicator. Holt originally championed a resurrected OTA, but he is expected to soon offer a new proposal that will build on technology expertise already available to Congress.



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