[This is an update of an article originally posted in 2010.]
Newt Gingrich maintains his support for increases in federal spending on scientific research. And I mean massive funding increases at two Federal agencies in particular, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (these agencies primarily oversee and support scientific research across the U.S.). Yet, in the 1990s as part of his Contract with America, he axed one, relatively small Congressional agency you’ve probably never heard of: the Office of Technology Assessment. The scientists and policy wonks who worked there published hundreds of reports at the request of Congress to help them make sense of often complicated science and technology policy matters. You can find archives of the reports here. Many are still referenced today.
Newt felt the OTA had become too politicized and insignificant. Perhaps it had. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that one tiny little line in the legislative language crafted to form the OTA was ignored as the years passed. The OTA was created to provide a shared working space for scientists, policymakers and citizens in an effort to assess, to the best of our abilities, the potential opportunities and challenges inherent in an endless stream of emerging technologies…then to use that combined knowledge to better inform policies. Basically, to help us, as a nation, better anticipate some of the economic and societal implications of emerging technologies. But the “citizen input” never really happened. Turns out it was difficult to make this happen in the 1970s when the OTA was launched. This was before the Internet, mind you, and with a tiny budget, the OTA couldn’t regularly afford to fly people together for meetings of the minds. If public input had become a staple of the OTA, as was designed, is it possible the agency would not have been viewed as a politicized one? Perhaps the public would have rallied to save the agency when Newt issued his call to arms.
Not too long ago, I launched a national effort to reopen the OTA and it sparked a strong, well-organized movement within the science community now to lobby Congress to refund the OTA. On one hand, I was thrilled! Wait, let me back up a bit to tell you how I became obsessed with the OTA. Please bear with me for just a moment.
I stumbled upon the OTA as a graduate student at UPenn (this is me on graduation day with comedian Yakov Smirnoff, seriously!) where my History and Sociology of Science professor handed me an assignment to “write about the rise and the fall of the OTA.” I read virtually every piece of literature that existed and contacted many of the authors and former staffers of the OTA.
I even met with Newt Gingrich, Sen. Kennedy, Rep. Rush Holt and chatted with Rep. Vern Elhers and several of the architects of the OTA. I was convinced that Congress was lost a bit without its only source of dedicated, nonpartisan tech assessments and believed the Office should be refunded (it was never really killed by Congress…it was just stripped of its $23million +/- budget).
However, in this era of public participation, open source, collaboration, and transparency, I sought to open a new, decentralized, 21st Century OTA, one that would provide a mechanism to both inform the public and seek their input before Bills are posted for public comment (who really comments on posted Bills besides lobbyists and special interest groups anyway?). It’s not an entirely new idea. Richard Sclove, the founder of the Loka Institute, more than hinted at this suggestion back in the 80s. Ironically, following a major public, political and economic disaster surrounding the 1990s roll out of genetically modified foods in Europe, the E.U. opened parliamentary OTAs with a twist: the science and technology assessment undertaken by the experts at their OTAs often include citizen participation as this has been found to help assess risk, create a better informed public, and better understand societal implications of emerging technologies. All of which are key ingredients in good policy making decisions, no? Do you want scientists or special interest groups to represent you and your questions/concerns societal impacts of science and emerging technologies? Congress knows no more than you do about these and many other scientific issues and they openly admit this. While I think it’s imperative for scientists to drive a discussion and impart their expertise on such matters, it’s equally vital that WE are afforded the opportunity to learn about and weigh in on these matters BEFORE Bills are created.
This is where the organizers of the current effort to reopen the OTA (the science community) and I differ. For the most part, they either do not understand or they don’t see the value in public participation. I can understand why if recent Town Hall meetings are what they’re basing their opinions on…but that’s not the type of participation I’m advocating for. I’m talking about a deliberate, well-constructed, inclusive approach that’s been proven to be successful in Europe (and even in China for crying out loud) and here in the U.S. although those efforts were not directly tied to Congress.
To advance this idea and help produce a “proof of concept,” Science Cheerleader teamed up with the Boston Museum of Science, Arizona Statue University, the Loka Institute, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars to form ECAST: Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology. We’re in the midst of our first, official activity tied to the World Wide Views on Biodiversity. If you’d like to learn more or get involved, please visit the website to sign up. It’s pretty exciting and I hope you’ll join in this evolving journey!
So where does Newt stand on the matter of the OTA today? Here’s a fairly recent video in which he suggests a few scientists on this side (R) and a few scientists on that side (D) would suffice as advisors. Dare I suggest this idea is worse than reopening the old OTA without public participation? Not only is he suggesting an “expert-only” approach, but a mere handful of experts at that. This former cheerleader can smell a clique a mile away
What do you think? Is there a better path forward, a shinier future for science policy making? Now, more than ever, let’s hope the answer is “yes.”