Bring back the OTA!

Imagine the United States government had an agency that was staffed with experts who were respected by scientists and policy makers of all political stripes.

Imagine this agency did studies on serious issues that would affect the nation in the future, and recommend policies that would allow our nation to take advantage of technology to promote human welfare and our economy, and that would allow our nation to resolve issues that threaten our health, domestic welfare and national security.

Imagine that, because the agency had such strong support and credibility, policy makers would enact recommendations the agency made.

Imagine!?! No, all you need to do is remember the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an arm of Congress that provided powerful information, insight and recommendations on technology policies for about two decades, from about 1974 to 1995.

OTA assessment steps Click on thumbnail for chart of the assessment process used by the Office of Technology Assessment to advise Congress on important technology issues.

Now, think about how useful it would be to have such an agency back, to advise our nation on climate change, emergency preparedness, weapons of mass destruction in the post-Soviet era, malaria eradication policies, internet safety and security, and other key issues.

It’s time to bring back the OTA.

Mark Hoofnagle at the Denialism Blog started sounding the conch:

The fact of the matter is that our government is currently operating without any real scientific analysis of policy. Any member can introduce whatever set of facts they want, by employing some crank think tank to cherry-pick the scientific literature to suit any ideological agenda. This is truly should be a non-partisan issue. Everybody should want the government to be operating from one set of facts, ideally facts investigated by an independent body within the congress that is fiercely non-partisan, to set the bounds of legitimate debate. Everybody should want policy and policy debates to be based upon sound scientific ground. Everybody should want evidence-based government.

Go read what he said. Check in with P. Z. Myers’ view. See what John Wilkins says. Hoofnagle lists actions you can take, today, to get the ball rolling.

In the meantime, wander over to the Princeton University site where the OTA’s reports are now archived (I understand the government was going to take it offline, sort of a latter-day burning of the library at Alexandria). Noodle around and look at the report titles. Notice that, though the agency was killed dead by 1995, the agency had reports on climate change. Notice that the agency was a decade or two ahead in urging policies to encourage the internet. Look at the other issues the agency dealt with, look at the legislation that resulted — and you’ll lament with me that we don’t have the agency around today, when the issues are tougher, the technology more difficult to understand, and politics more driven by rumor than fact.

Killing the OTA was the Pearl Harbor of the present war on science. It’s time we started to fight back, to take back the scientific Pacific — our nation’s future is no less in peril now from the war on science, than it was then from hostile nations.



6 Responses to Bring back the OTA!

  1. […] the Washington Post story on the event. Here’s my previous post, with links to Denialism and Pharyngula, and even John Wilkins (love that picture of […]


  2. Pam says:

    At least one presidential candidate supports the return of OTA

    ” a “war on science” that has allowed political appointees to shape and in some cases distort science-based federal reports.”


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Oh, c’mon – I just found one more very odd way to spell “Wilkins.” It’s a trick I learned from Prof. !muheye-urs.

    [Thanks. Fixed it. Also note that Lynch has taken his photo down; maybe your description no longer fits?]


  4. John Wilkins says:

    John Lynch is a trim, handsome and Irish philosopher of science. John Wilkins is a fat, flabby, ugly Australian silverback. But it was he, not Lynch, whose post you linked to. Wilkins doesn’t care, but Lynch might.


  5. MarkH says:

    Great! Thanks for the link.


  6. It’s way past time for the OTA to be revived.

    Because of the way it was set-up it was rigorous yet non-partisan. They weren’t afraid of the so-called “overqualified” and the professionals were certainly not afraid of discourse but fortunately, somewhat protected from witchhunts.

    The General Accounting Office is not the equivalent. For example, they came to western Alaska at the behest of Sen. Ted Stevens to discuss erosion issues in 3 Villages. But as I testified, there are at least 60 Villages in our region and close to 100 others which need immediate, comprehensive, cultural ecology assessment. (this was prior to Katrina. Delta living can’t be left up to the engineers and budget process alone). Compare this study to that of the OTA on An Alaskan Challenge: Native Village Sanitation, May 1994, OTA-ENV-591

    As a nation (we’re talking billions to be wasted or spent properly), and as neighbors, we (especially the rural and remote communities) need OTA.


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