Scientists Tell Congress It Needs Independent Scientific and Technical Advice

By Cameron
July 25, 2006

Today the House Science Committee held a hearing exploring Congress’ need for scientific and technical advice. (Witness lists and hearing webcast can be found here.) Eleven years ago, Congress closed the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). This office was created in 1972 to aid Congress “in the identification and consideration of existing and probable impacts of technological application.” When it was closed, the newly-elected Republican majority sought to reduce the size of the federal government and the office’s annual $20 million budget was a clear target. The office was also justifiably criticized for not providing timely reports to Congress and for being disconnected from the true needs that Congress had regarding science and technology issues. The scientific community opposed OTAs closure and, to this day, this issue remains a sore spot. Many believe that Congress would make better policy decisions if this resource still existed.

Congress does not face an information shortage. Each day hundreds of documents are dumped on Congress, many of them dealing with technical issues. One witness said that staffers now receive about 200 e-mails daily from advocacy groups. Numerous groups provide scientific advice to Congress including think tanks, professional societies (such as ACM), the National Academies, governmental agencies, and even Congress’ own research service. None of the witnesses argued Congress needed more scientific and technical advice. They argued it needed independent advice that was more closely aligned with Congress’ needs, and that this need couldn’t be fulfilled by the various outside groups.

The common refrain was that Congress faces increasingly complex scientific issues. Anyone can make an exhaustive list just by glancing at Congress’ legislative schedule: stem cell research, global warming, electronic surveillance, network neutrality, environmental toxins, etc. Science underpins each of these, and the witnesses all argued this warrants creating a new body to provide Congress bipartisan, objective, timely, and authoritative analysis of technical issues. None felt that reconstituting OTA was the correct solution, rather that a new advisory body should have scientific staff and produce more timely reports with better integration with congressional committees to suit Congress’ policy objectives.

Considering that USACM’s mission is to provide objective technical advice on computing issues, the hearing provided useful insight and some frustration as to how we approach informing Congress. There is a need for Congress to receive better scientific and technical advice. There is also a need for Congress to take this advice into account. Finally, there is a need to recognize the limitations of scientific advise from those involved in giving it.

The first need can be fulfilled by experts providing input through societies and other groups such as ACM, and a body within Congress solely dedicated to technical analysis. However, even with the best scientific evidence, decisions in Congress are made on a political, not scientific, basis. For better or worse the political calculus about how a decision impacts a Member of Congress back home is paramount. This isn’t an argument against reconstituting OTA or providing scientific advice to Congress, rather it is a recognition of the frustration that many have within the scientific community.

For example, ample scientific evidence pointed toward building stronger levees in New Orleans. It turns out that the existing levees were not built correctly, but the risk that they would have failed even if properly built is well known. When it came to investing scarce federal dollars in that area, many other more questionable projects were funded likely for political reasons. Would more scientific assessments have made a difference in making a political decision about how to allocate scarce resources? The answer isn’t clear to me.

The witnesses did not explore in depth the use of independent scientific analysis, rather arguing that it is needed. There is a chance that the pros or cons given as part of technical analysis will be hijacked to suit whatever policy Congress is pushing. There is also a chance that it will inform the debate. This is a persistent issue, and there isn’t enough evidence to judge its extent. The question of Congress’ use of information is certainly one that should be asked if an OTA-like entity was reconstituted.

It seems clear that much of the scientific community believes there are significant gaps in the science and technical advice Congress is getting. Certainly professional scientific societies and organizations such as ACM can fill part of this role, but these efforts will never been seen as truly independent. The question is whether Congress believes there are gaps and what they might do about it. While many Members at today’s hearing clearly supported the idea of a new OTA-like entity, the evidence shows that Congress, as a whole, doesn’t support this change right now. Since OTA was eliminated, there have been many efforts, ideas and proposals to address the issue. So far Congress has only adopted a limited pilot program.