Restoring the Office of Technology Assessment
Read the organizational letter in support of restoring the OTA (pdf).
What's an OTA? Why does Congress need one?
Congress faces many complicated questions about issues such as nanotechnology, stem cell research, the effectiveness of airport and port security systems, the best armor and equipment to protect our soldiers, and how best to protect public health and safety.
From 1972 until funding was cut in 1995, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) helped Congress to assess complex issues and make wiser legislative choices. OTA reports addressed issues before almost every Congressional committee, and through those reports, legislators could better understand new technologies and their policy implications. The reports helped set the terms of debate and increased understanding of the risks and implications of policy options. Because these reports were designed to frame issues and assess multiple policy alternatives, they were often cited by both sides during the same Congressional debate.
Washington, D.C. is a city awash in reports, white papers, fact sheets and other bits of information. The challenge for Congress is to separate the valuable information from the spin. This process is time consuming and often requires time and a level of expertise that even the best and most well-trained congressional staff will not always have.
While the analysis produced by OTA did not always drive congressional decision making, it did set boundaries to the debate, rule out some scientifically incorrect arguments, and help to frame political decisions in technically defensible ways.
As OTA supporter Representative Amo Houghton (R-NY) said, "We are cutting off one of the most important arms of Congress when we cut off unbiased knowledge about science and technology."
What OTA Accomplished
The Congressional environment is highly political and hence technical analysis for Congress is very different from research or analysis conducted in academic or other settings. The OTA's unique value derived from its ability to frame problems, to distinguish topics of importance from non-issues, and to identify the important policy choices available. By leaving out the value judgments and prescriptive recommendations, OTA was able to be both authoritative and credible.
The OTA was overseen by a Technical Advisory Board which was composed of six Senators and six representatives, evenly split between the two parties. The agency worked primarily on studies requested by Congressional committees. Because the OTA was a part of Congress it was adept at communicating with politicians but was also sufficiently insulated from politics.
When OTA was operational, it more than earned its keep by identifying wasteful and ineffective programs and suggesting improvements to others. For example:
- As far back as 1980, OTA recommended that the U.S. improve its disaster preparedness by emphasizing self-help. Studies cited by OTA showed that people prefer "rebuilding advice and supplies to extensive mass shelter or temporary housing." Over two decades later, FEMA trailer contracts wasted tens of millions of dollars during the disaster response to Hurricane Katrina. A GAO report determined that FEMA wasted much as $30 million in poorly managed temporary trailer supply contracts, including "about $15 million spent on maintenance inspections even though there was no evidence that inspections occurred."
- A 1988 OTA study, "Healthy Children: Investing in the Future" pointed out the vulnerability of low birthweight infants to a variety of physical and mental disabilities. Its research concluded that expanding Medicaid eligibility to all pregnant women living in poverty would cost much less than the cost of $14,000 to $30,000 to treat the health problems of each low birthweight infants. That study helped change Medicaid eligibility rules by expanding access to prenatal care to millions of women in poverty.
- A 1987 OTA study predicted that Medicare coverage of mammograms for senior women could cut breast cancer deaths by 22 percent by the year 2000. Likewise, a 1990 OTA study concluded that older women undergoing routine pap smears were much less likely to develop cervical cancer than unscreened women.8 Both of these reports were instrumental in expanding Medicare coverage to include routine mammograms and pap smears, thus saving both taxpayer dollars and lives.
OTA Could Help Congress Avoid Mistakes
In recent years, Congress has approved a number of expensive yet troubled programs that could have been identified and averted by a timely OTA assessment. For example, The Department of Homeland Security spent three years pushing for a costly radiation detection system for smuggled nuclear material that did not work as promised, while neglecting to upgrade existing equipment that could have improved security. DHS had already awarded billions of dollars in contracts for deployment of the detectors before critical Government Accountability Office reports and congressional protests caused it to reconsider.
Can't Other Entities Fill The Vacuum?
The National Academies (NAS), the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) are three other entities that are also in the business of providing information to Congress. These three organizations are all good at what they do, and they should continue to do it, but none of them satisfactorily fills the important role that OTA played.
- The NAS provides excellent consensus recommendations from groups of the nation’s most respected scientists and experts. But advising Congress is not its primary function and while it tries to be responsive to congressional requests, it can and does say no at times. Furthermore, the NAS is not always attuned to the needs and timelines of legislators and its reports are very expensive to produce. As a non-governmental agency, the NAS lacks sufficient high-level access to other parts of the federal government.
- The CRS is highly respected for its rapid response, but it is not accustomed to working with stakeholders or outside experts. It does not have the necessary technological or analytical capacity of the OTA, nor does it have experience with peer review.
- The GAO has very recently begun to undertake technological assessments of the type formerly done by OTA, but that program is bound by the rules and culture of a financial auditing agency. While the GAO has extensive access to all parts of the federal government and has produced numerous reports that have proven extremely useful for oversight, it has little experience with forward-looking assessments. Given the GAO’s core mission, it is unlikely that technology assessment will find a permanent home at GAO.
How Do We Bring Back the OTA?
Fortunately, the office itself was not abolished, just deprived of resources. UCS is working with a broad coalition of organizations and experts to make the case to Congress that restoring the OTA is essential for the ability of Congress to make fully-informed decisions.