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.
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.
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.
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.
- OTA in the Cyber Cemetery at the University of North Texas
- Geotimes article calling for resurrection of the agency, from 2001
- Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article calling for OTA’s revival, May 2007
- The old law, from Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute
- Current technology assessment appropriations news, from Sunshine Foundation