A Key Reason Why U.S. Politicians Don't Understand Science

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In 1995, Congressional Republicans shut down the Office of Technology Assessment. For 23 years, this agency had published reports that provided legislators with nonpartisan analyses of science and technology issues. Last week, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) tried to reopen the agency with minimal funding.

He failed.

The legislation—a proposed amendment to the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act that would have provided $2.5 million for the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) —was defeated in the House by a 248-164 vote, with 217 Republicans opposing and 155 Democrats supporting.


Holt, a former research physicist, has been a longtime advocate of reopening the office. In a recent press release, he noted:

OTA was an agency dedicated to serve Congress. When Newt Gingrich came to power in the 1990s, he eliminated OTA to cut costs. But this turned out to be a foolish move, as OTA had always saved taxpayers far more money than it cost. An OTA study on Agent Orange, for instance, helped save the government $10 million. Another report recommended changes in computer systems at the Social Security Administration that saved more than $350 million. Studies on the Synthetic Fuels Corporation helped save tens of billions of dollars.

Although in ending OTA Gingrich said Congress could get help elsewhere, that hasn't worked. When OTA shut down, technological topics did not become less relevant to the work of Congress. They just became less understood. And scientific thinking lost its toehold on Capitol Hill, with troubling consequences for the ways Congress approaches all issues— not just those that are explicitly scientific.


The Rise and Fall of an Agency

Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment in 1972, at a time of mounting public concern over pollution, nuclear energy, pesticides, and other technology-induced hazards. OTA was conceived as an in-house think tank that would help Congress fact-check technical claims made by the various expert agencies of the executive branch (such as the EPA and the Department of Defense), while also forecasting coming technological quandaries. A twelve-member board, comprised of six members of Congress from each party, approved each OTA project, to help ensure the agency's objectivity.


Over the years, OTA produced some 750 reports and assessments on topics ranging from global climate change to the accuracy of polygraphs. The studies were highly regarded for their ability to translate complex science-speak into accessible prose. The reports were made available to the general public as well as Congress, and were often Government Printing Office best sellers. Other countries, including the UK and Germany, copied the U.S. example, establishing their own versions of OTA.

The first rumblings of Congressional discontent emerged in the 1980s, when OTA published reports raising questions about the technological feasibility of the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative. In a 1985 assessment, OTA concluded that SDI's goal of protecting the entire U.S. population from a nuclear attack would be "impossible to achieve if the Soviets are determined to deny it to us." Three years later, another OTA report warned that SDI would stand a significant chance of "catastrophic failure" due to software glitches.


Those reports didn't win friends among conservatives. And, when Newt Gingrich initiated the shutdown of OTA in 1995, some in Washington referred to it as "Reagan's Revenge." A 2001 comment by Gingrich, explaining the reason OTA was killed, pretty much said it all: "We constantly found scientists who thought what they were saying was not correct." Meanwhile, other nations shook their heads in disbelief. "That the leading technological state in the world, a democracy like us, should have abolished its own main means of democratic assessment left us aghast," wrote Lord Kennet, who created the OTA-inspired European Parliamentary Technology Assessment Network.


In an article recounting the history of the agency, science journalist Chris Mooney observed:

In defending his party's dismantling of OTA, Gingrich has advocated what one might call a "free market" approach to scientific and technical expertise. In the Speaker's view, members of Congress should take the initiative to call individual scientists and inform themselves, much as Gingrich himself did…. "Gingrich's view was always, 'I'll set up one-on-one interactions between members of Congress and key members of the scientific community,'" recalls Bob Palmer, former Democratic staff director of the House Committee on Science. "Which I thought was completely bizarre. I mean, who comes up with these people, and who decides they're experts, and what member of Congress really wants to do that?"

But quality scientific advice needs an institutional structure and consistent procedures and methodologies behind it; it can't simply be privatized….With OTA gone, Gingrich's troops didn't hesitate to invoke their own favored experts to undermine the scientific mainstream in hearings devoted to subjects such as ozone depletion and global warming. The attacks came as the new Republican majority sought to free up the market in another way as well–by ramming through a major "regulatory reform" bill that would have prescribed rigid and inflexible rules governing the use of science to protect public health and the environment.


This is not the first time that Holt has tried to revive the agency, and he says that he'll keep trying this year, working with colleagues in the Senate. "Funding OTA would be a minimal expense that would pay off many times over by averting foolish or wasteful policies," he says. "Decisions made in ignorance are costly."

A complete archive of OTA's reports are available online at Princeton University and at the Federation of American Scientists.