April 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 4

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From the Executive Officer

Time for a New (or Renewed)
Office of Technology Assessment?

sally hillsman
Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

A tempered excitement is quietly energizing the scientific community in the government and in academia following recent moves by the Obama administration. Enhancing federally supported basic science research through a significant two-year funding boost—courtesy of the economic stimulus—has helped redress the serious downturn in federal support of basic science. This supports the seriousness of the president oft repeated statements about the significance of science and technology for the nation’s current and future well-being.

The science community has expressed its collective appreciation to Congress and the Administration in frequent communications to the White House and Members and staff on Capitol Hill. At the same time, a tempered restraint underlies this positive response. It stems from the erratic and unstable history of federal research funding over recent years.

Today’s Uncertainties

Two issues dampen unbridled excitement: Congress delayed six months in approving the government’s FY 2009 budget for the science research agencies, and Congress has let the five-year push to double the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget, which culminated in 2003, lose its momentum against inflation. The NIH budget doubling itself caused some serious negative side effects. These included calls from Congress demanding immediate disease cures and highly visible, partisan attacks on the process of determining research support based on peer review. These and other forms of political backlash have led some science advocates to rethink future efforts to push funding doubling initiatives.

Congress’ delay in funding the FY 2009 budget has had massive adverse consequences on the efficiency of federal science agencies to administer funding as well as on the work of the research and academic communities. Such chaotic budgetary upheavals contribute both to slowing science and to speeding up the "leaky" pipeline of future scientists whose research training is threatened. There are potentially serious long-term ramifications of such unstable science funding to the sustained contributions of science to the nation’s future economic growth, innovation, and well being.

Tomorrow’s a New Day…? Maybe

vp_logoThe promise of science’s offerings being discussed openly and enthusiastically in policy circles offered by the new administration suggests a new day is possible. The science community’s enthusiasm at being noticed and appreciated can only feed the creative juices of scientists who have felt legitimate anxiety in recent years from the funding uncertainties, government misuse of their research, and the subsequent economic downturn. The promises of science are great in the long (and sometimes short) run and the positive results of scientists’ new enthusiasm could have significant benefits if there is a demonstrable realignment in the relationship between the nation’s elected leadership and the science infrastructure.

The new administration’s science-friendly rhetoric introduces a qualitative change in Washington and is as important as the money encouraging young people to enter the science education pipeline. It is also significant that the impact of the science funding is supposed to be evaluated. As important is the requirement of the $800-billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that the government’s management of the resources be publicly accountable and transparent in order to reassure taxpayers (and Congress) that these supplemental funds are used effectively.

Who’s Congress Gonna Call …

The push for responsible spending that accompanies this massive distribution of taxpayer money directly confronts how the federal government exercises its responsibility to calculate societal benefits and judge the implications of specific scientific and technological undertakings. The President currently has at his disposal a chief science advisor (see "Science Policy") and the Executive Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), as well as the knowledge, advice, and research of the thousands of scientists at federal research, regulatory, and statistical agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF, Department of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau, Food and Drug Administration). These Executive Branch agencies can also commission impartial studies by the National Research Council (NRC). The NRC produces about 300 studies a year by panels of academic scientists.

But, who can Congress call on for reliable and unbiased advice on science policy or objective analyses of federal science funding done in a relatively short time on often highly technical matters with major implications for the nation? Congressional committees—whose purview includes science and technology—can hold hearings and tap the expertise of large numbers of scientists, including those in government, academia, business, and other private-sector stakeholders. And, very occasionally, Congress appropriates funds to commission studies by the NRC. But the NRC’s is an understandably slow consensus process and congressional committees don’t always have staff with the expertise to analyzes the sometimes disparate views in testimony.

There once was another resource. From 1972 until 1995, when a politically motivated withdrawal of funding eliminated the office, Congress had the well-regarded, nonpartisan Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). A creature of Congress (like the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, this efficient, 140-person intellectual trust provided in-depth reports on the impact of science and technology. Its mission was careful analytical assessment of the "physical, biological, economic, and social and political effects of new technology." OTA helped Congress guard against dubious science policy by relying on empirical work. Several OTA reports wielded substantial influence that endured long beyond 1995.

OTA reports were distinguished from those of the NRC by virtue of their greater breadth of contributors and stakeholders. Without the NRC requirement for report consensus, OTA gathered the broadest range of study participants, including academics, industry stakeholders, and other policy and technical experts, to ensure that the universe of relevant parties was engaged.

. . . for Nonpartisan S&T Assessment?

After OTA, a science policy free-for-all reigned on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress scrambled to locate their own technology gurus and cherry-pick their own data sources. Reliable scientific sources on myriad issues (e.g., the then-nascent World Wide Web, genetically modified food, and technology transfer) were not accessible to many individual Members who lacked the background to judge the integrity of the advice they received or to distinguish real- from pseudo-science. The resulting chaos could not be resolved easily, because the nation was awash in issues that required nonpartisan and non-politicized analysis not easily found on K-Street, in think tanks, or even in academic institutions with particular programs to sell. There was lots of "snake oil" for solving our nation’s problems. Since 1995, during the peak of our nation’s needs for thoughtful science and technology policy, Congress has been starving for accessible, thoughtful, nonpartisan analyses to assess the potential long- and short-range contributions to Americans’ social, economic and environmental well-being.

Congress has endured a 13-year, self-imposed intelligence handicap as it attempted to allocate government resources without a central infrastructure to support well-researched policy options. A centralized, nonpartisan congressional resource that builds on the OTA experience could help Congress keep a level head about science projects and issues as well as provide an appropriate balance to the White House’s OSTP. Debate about this is essential if science—and especially social science—is going to have a place at the policy table and an "adult" conversation at that table. logo_small


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