RIP: The US Office of Technology Assessment

By | March 1, 2015

Thinking about the adult literacy study that Lynne Marcus, I, and our crack team put together caused me to wax nostalgic about the federal agency that sponsored the whole event: an arm of the US Congress called the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Established in 1972 as a specialized arm of the legislative branch assigned to investigate scientific and technological issues that might come before Congress in the form of legislation, OTA was for many years the source of much good investigation of applied science and technology. It’s reports were heavily relied upon by the Congressional science committees and by other science agencies in the government. It was never a large operation. Headquartered in a series of offices carved out of a group of old broad rowhouses on the edge of Capitol Hill and littered with information for past and present research projects, OTA staffers were perpetually overworked and multitasking. Yet they were some of the most highly skilled and dedicated scientists and engineers and analysts in the government, and they were almost universally respected by all the other agencies, as well as by the Congressional staff who worked with them.

OTA reports were typically supported by outside research commissioned in support of the project. Projects tended to be defined in fairly wide terms. Unlike agencies like NSF and NIH that operated primarily through research grants, OTA’s work was always carried out through specific contracts for particular pieces of work. When OTA defined the project, it would typically then issue a request for proposals (RFP) to academic and research folks, inviting them to define what needed to be done to produce the designated information. OTA merely specified that the product it was seeking, and placed very few constraints on the proposals beyond that. They did tend to give extra weight to interdisciplinary teams and innovative research methods. When all the contracted research was completed, usually on extremely tight deadlines and schedules, OTA would host a day or two’s worth of conferencing around the topic featuring the various research teams as well as OTA staff, during which the summary report would be scoped out and a degree of consensus sought on overall conclusions. OTA projects were always highly participative. There would always be various congressional and committee staff members in attendance, and occasionally a member would even drop by for a while.

A distinguishing feature of OTA contracts was that they were remarkably cheap. OTA was notorious for extracting maximum value from its commissioned research despite the incredibly stingy budgets they were prepared to allow. Nonetheless, they attracted many excellent researchers and research teams to their projects, partly because it was considered a prestigious agency to work for and partly because the topics that they investigated tended to be lively and serious areas of concern in the various professional communities. OTA contractors formed almost a kind of monastic society, deriving pleasure from performing incredibly difficult work under very difficult circumstances. There was always a sense in OTA projects of concern and meaning; they did not engage their resources in frivolous inquiries, but concentrated on areas where there was serious public policy debate. For over twenty years, OTA’s investigations provided valuable underpinning for congressional legislative efforts.

All this came to a crashing halt in 1995 when the Republicans under Newt Gingrich took over the Congress in the name of their “Contract with America.” This was, you may remember, a series of promises to enact a number of changes to government dearly beloved of various conservative activists. The demise of OTA was not part of the formal contract, but it was very much in the spirit the overall changes being enacted. One of the very first actions undertaken by the new Congress was to abolish OTA, on a very tight timeline.

Why, you might ask, would the U.S. Congress voluntarily choose to cut off its source of technology information, just at the time at which technologies, particularly information technologies, were about to become so central to American life? The answer lies in politics. OTA never pulled punches in its reports; it strove to be as straightforward and clear as it could be. In many areas, its reports called for either significantly reforming federal legislation or even creating new legislation to respond to new problems. It sought to increase the level of involvement of the legislative branch in science and technology, just to the time when the national ideology as embodied in Newt Gingrich’s Republican Party was committing itself to decreased involvement, even disengagement, and certainly to significantly reduced levels of funding for any federal science activities. By being bluntly honest about how things were about to change, OTA not infrequently stepped on the toes of some major Republican constituencies with a vested interest in NOT raising these issues.

Since OTA was a direct part of the Legislative Branch, it was much more vulnerable than if it had been an executive agency; thus, Mr. Gingrich and his allies found the agency to be an easy scapegoat and sacrifice, an easy kill target for demonstrating their commitment to the contract. There’s an even more disturbing subtext to this whole episode – the increasing willingness over the last twenty years or so on the part of congressional Republicans in particular to downplay science in favor of faith and ideology. It seems to be easy to score political points by playing on the public’s uncertainty about science and ambivalence about its effects on society. In the long run, there can be nothing positive about this trend, because science isn’t going away and things aren’t going to be different just because we don’t pay attention to them. This is only one part of the hot mess that currently constitutes American politics, but a particularly serious and threatening part.

OTA is not forgotten, of course. There is a memorial website. There is an online archive based at Princeton University of all of the OTA reports and many of the contractor studies that supported them. Looking over these reports is informative. We knew about a lot of the things that been going on lately even back then. It’s just too bad that we don’t have a similar capacity today. The Center for Effective Government and the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others, is promoting a return of something like OTA, but in today’s poisonous political climate, the prospects for such an initiative are marginal at best.

We’ve been paying for the short-sightedness and venality of the politically motivated destruction of Congressional technical knowledge and advice act ever since 1995, in terms of lowered political visibility of key social issues and their connections to technology. Someday, perhaps we’ll have the vision as a society to re-create something like OTA, and then perhaps the public dialogue around science and technology will be enhanced. But don’t hold your breath; the Singularity is more likely than the return of common sense, knowledge, and good will to national politics.