The Office of Technology Assessment—OTA—was created by the Technology Assessment Act of 1972. It was defunded after Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, presumably because the Contract with America called for reducing Congressional spending.
One of Gingrich’s rationales was that members of Congress could talk directly with scientists without a filter (OTA). A nano second of reflection on that reason, if you can stop laughing long enough to reflect makes clear that it is nonsense. What defunding did make possible was opening the door to an army of lobbyists who could bamboozle members without being challenged by internal experts on matters of science and technology. Bootleggers had free rein to align themselves with Baptists by profiting from promoting a variety of “national interests.”
OTA was governed by a board that consisted of an equal number of democrat and republican senators and representatives. OTA provided Congress, at its request, with objective, comprehensive information and options it needed for the issues under consideration. Since it went out of existence, the General Accountability Office (GAO) has expanded its mission to include technology assessments. But GAO is a large organization that focuses on on-going programs where OTA focused on comprehensive longer term technical analyses.
In creating OTA, Congress stated “technology continues to change and expand rapidly, its applications are large and growing in scale; and
increasingly extensive, … and critical in their impact, … on the natural and social environment. It also found that “the Federal agencies … responsible directly to the Congress are not designed to provide the legislative branch with adequate … information, independently developed, relating to the potential impact of technological applications…”. The impact of science and technology have continued to grow in terms of importance and costs to society.
There is no shortage of important topics for which Congress needs informed and objective information. The needs for improved cybersecurity are evident daily. The electrical grid is woefully out of date and needs to be modernized, do advances in nuclear energy make it a potentially competitive addition to our electric power mix, and the scientific rationale for battery electric vehicles and solar/wind power are wanting. Congress and DOD have been sold a bill of goods by contractors on advanced weapon systems. The F-35 costing over $100 million a copy has been judged as failing to deliver “the full Block 3F capabilities (full combat capabilities) and the Navy’s $23 billion Gerald Ford carrier has been described as “a monument to the Navy’s and defense industry’s ability to justify spending billions on unproven technologies that often deliver worse performance at a higher cost.” The same is true of the Navy’s Littoral class vessel which was intended to replace Frigates. After 16 years and billions of dollars, the Navy may abandon the program because its high tech systems don’t work, its turbine propulsion system falls off, and it is highly vulnerable. It would be foolish to assume that only DOD has been captured by the defense complex. Any department with billions of dollars to spend on advanced systems is a ripe target to be exploited.
A strong case for re-establishing OTA has been made by former Congressman Rush Hold—PhD in physics—OTA–who is now the President of the Association for the Advancement of American Science (AAAS). The new Congress should make restoring OTA a high priority; one that should be able to attract bi-partisan support.