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Environment

Bring Back OTA

by Rudy M. Baum
August 31, 2009 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 87, ISSUE 35

I SPENT PART of last week excavating my office desk in the wake of the ACS meeting in Washington, D.C., and a week's vacation in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. I came across a July 24, 2009, letter from Ralph Nader urging me to support an effort by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) to reinstate Congress' Office of Technology Assessment.

I have never been a big fan of Nader's, but here's an issue on which I'm in wholehearted agreement with him. OTA was established in 1972 and, after a rocky first couple of years, grew into an organization whose reports on a wide range of science and technology topics—some 750 of them over 20-plus years—were highly respected and influential in shaping U.S. science and technology policy.

I have more than a passing familiarity with OTA. After I started working for ACS in the mid-1970s, I took several courses in science and technology policy at George Washington University. OTA was one of the major topics in science and technology policy in those days, and I read a few of the office's reports as part of my classwork. One of my classmates, who became one of my closest friends, joined the OTA staff after he received his master's degree and worked there for several years.

OTA reports were definitely not light reading. The methodology that went into producing a report was painstaking and thorough. Many experts were consulted. Reports always presented members of Congress with a range of policy options. The reports were, in short, the work of serious science and technology policy wonks.

OTA also didn't bend to prevailing political winds in the preparation of its reports. For instance, its 1985 report on "Ballistic Missile Defense Technologies"—President Ronald Reagan's beloved "Star Wars"—said plainly that U.S. cities could not be protected against a Soviet nuclear attack. And its massive two-volume 1993 report "Preparing for an Uncertain Climate" stated: "Thus, unless the predictive [climate models] are seriously flawed, average global temperatures are expected to increase several degrees over the next century, even under the most optimistic emissions scenarios."

OTA regularly ran afoul of conservatives in Congress and in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush Administrations because they wanted conclusions different from what the evidence supported. Eventually, OTA was done in following the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections and the Republican "Contract With America." Republicans argued that other agencies could fill OTA's role, and funding for the office was eliminated in 1995, an action one representative called "an act of scientific self-lobotomy."

There have been periodic calls for the reestablishment of OTA in the intervening years. Holt, who is a Ph.D. physicist and one of the few trained scientists in Congress, has been one of the more vocal proponents of re-funding OTA. He presented testimony to that effect before the House Science Committee in 2006. ACS President-Elect Catherine Hunt testified at the same hearing, and while not quite calling for the reestablishment of OTA, she said that "Congress should consider establishing an in-house science and technology unit that ... provides timely, thorough assessments for decisions on issues involving a wide range of science, engineering, and technology."

Earlier this year, Holt wrote an editorial for Wired.com entitled "Reversing the Congressional Science Lobotomy." In a June 19 statement, Holt said, "Stopping OTA's functioning was a stupendous act of false economy. We have not gotten the equivalent, useful, relevant work—not from think tanks, not from interest groups, not from our universities, and not from our friends back home." He went on to observe that OTA's budget was far less than 1% of the budget of the legislative branch.

Nader's letter suggests that OTA could be reestablished with a budget of about $32 million. Given the enormous sums that Congress is spending, much of it on science and technology projects, that seems like a very small amount to spend on getting some good advice on science and technology policy issues.

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum
Editor-in-chief

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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