Bring Back the OTA
Newt Gingrich has been called a “futurist”, a “policy wonk”, an advocate of adapting technology to human efficiencies, among other less flattering descriptions. So what did he do the year he took over the House of Representatives from the Democrats in 1995 — the so-called Gingrich Revolution? He terminated the technical-scientific brains of the Congress which was the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).
The OTA from 1972 to 1995 provided Congress and the public with critical analyses and reports of the difficult issues interfacing science, technology and society before Congress. When Gingrich abolished the OTA, its total annual budget was $22 million a year — a drop in the bucket compared to the immense Congressional budget of salaries, perks, benefits and pensions.
At the beginning, OTA was supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Year after year its skilled, non-partisan staff generated many reports as an advisory arm of Congress. With a staff of about 140 specialists, OTA delivered over 750 public reports to its Congressional overseers, not to mention responding to thousands of inquiries and testifying before House and Senate Committees.
OTA had to tackle subjects that were very controversial, especially in corporate lobbying circles. They did studies on defensive medicine that the hospital-medical lobby did not like, on access to public buses by people with disabilities that Greyhound did not welcome, on the auto industry that displeased General Motors and on climate change that the fossil-fuel industry (oil, coal and gas) did not approve. Get the idea.
When the Gingrich-Republican darker ages took over Capitol Hill, the princes of darkness determined that they did not want to know what OTA knew. They did not want their corporate masters to be impeached by an arm of their Congress. Too much credibility there.
It didn’t even matter that many of OTA reports were exceedingly important but not directly addressed to some industrial or commercial derelictions. For example, given the Katrina debacle, wouldn’t OTA have been more than a little relevant alerting Congress from time to time to its January 1980 report titled U.S. Disaster Assistance to Developing Countries: Lessons Applicable to U.S. Domestic Disaster Programs?
OTA, under the leadership of physicist Jack Gibbons, became such a trusted and professional organization that representatives from some 25 countries visited the agency to learn from its example in 1983 alone. The parliaments of the United Kingdom and Germany established similar science/technology advisory bodies.
After Gingrich disbanded the OTA, M. Granger Morgan, professor and head of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University wrote: “Congress had chosen’ ignorance, and ended the 23-year history of its best and smallest agency.”
It is time to reinstate the Enlightenment for a Congress besieged as never before with decisions regarding genetic engineering, missile defense, privacy, citizen surveillance, nanotechnology, stagnant automotive technology, global warming and many other perils and promises.
Congressman Rush Holt (D-New Jersey), a scientist from Princeton, introduced legislation to start up a similar Center for Science and Technology Assessment in the form of an amendment to H.R. 4755 in July 2004. It did not make it, receiving 115 yes votes to 252 no votes. In my judgment, roughly one third of Congress right now, without any added persuasion or outside mobilization, would vote for such a capability.
So imagine if the leaders of the scientific and engineering worlds organized themselves to mount a greatly needed effort in Congress. Imagine the heads of our leading universities like MIT and CalTech, along with scores of Nobel Prize winners and heads of prominent foundations bestirring themselves, along with people who were prominent in OTA years ago. Some of these people are close to influential political figures. It would happen. And not a day too soon.
To sample the OTA Reports, go to http://www.wws.princeton.edu/ota.
To join this effort to reinstate OTA, write to OTA Reborn at PO Box 19312, Washington, DC 20036.