Filling the Policy Vacuum Created by OTA’s Demise

The first president and and the first Congress of the new millennium are taking office in January. This has inevitably generated media speculation about how the rapid pace of technological change will create particularly thorny challenges for policymakers in the coming years. The question left unanswered is: Who will help policymakers understand science and technology (S&T) well enough to make wise decisions? Ten years ago, the answer would have been obvious: the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). But Congress eliminated OTA in 1995 at a time when its role was becoming more important than ever.

Most of us who worked at OTA (my stint was seven years spanning the late 1980s and early 1990s) have mourned publicly and privately for the loss of this institution. It provided a vital service to Congress by delivering reliable and useful guidance that incorporated the knowledge of experts as well as the assurance that the input of stakeholders had been heard–though not always heeded. OTA provided a unique blend of public service, analysis, and staff support that seems sparse today.

One can only conjecture about how the OTA process and reports might have shaped debates and policymaking on topics such as the 2000 census, RU-486, gene therapy, and privacy on the Internet, among others. No doubt OTA would have been asked to examine stem cell research, cloning, bandwith disputes, climate change, national security in federal laboratories, and the investment imperatives of the “new economy.”

It’s not as if we have lacked expert input on these issues. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission, the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee, the National Academies (especially through the National Research Council and the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy), and the National Science Board have all offered credible, forceful, specific advice on possible courses of policy action.

OTA went further. It kept issues alive for analysis by describing the contending forces and inviting stakeholders to confront one another’s claims. It explained all the proposed policy alternatives, even soliciting its advisors to disagree publicly. In short, the process was messy, open, and sufficiently democratic to distill the national interest out of the partisan, parochial, and presumptively self-serving. Because it was an arm of Congress, its constituency was the citizenry–not just the experts in academe, industry, or the think tanks. At a time of partisan interpretation of polling results, dueling scientific data in court, and spinmeisters galore, some worry that rigorous analysis is debunked by those outside of S&T as merely an expression of values by those who subscribe to the “scientific method.” OTA alone was no antidote to such a worldview, but it was a forum for identifying beliefs, parsing claims, and evaluating the state of knowledge.

Congress has shown little interest in reconsidering its decision to eliminate OTA. Those of us who see a need for the type of insight and analysis that OTA provided should therefore be thinking of other ways to provide this service to policymakers and the nation. My goal is to spur the readers of Issues to consider ways to fill these gaps left by the demise of OTA and to answer troubling questions about how best to provide guidance to government.

The diminution of policy capability throughout the federal agencies. Like all policy analyses, OTA reports succeeded at reformulating the policy questions, identifying possible unintended and long-term consequences, and reaching out to broad publics consisting of policy actors and critics alike. Is Congress, and for that matter the executive branch, receiving such support from inside and outside government? Do they seek data as the basis for decisionmaking, or does more analysis bring more uncertainty and internal tension about how to act in a highly politicized environment? It is ironic that citizens in European countries have institutionalized technology assessment organizations modeled on the U.S. OTA. But democracies take many forms. Is it possible that the litigious, media-saturated U.S. democracy now feeds extremist positions that routinely crowd out ponderous reports that feature few uncluttered paths or risk-free benefits?

The need for staff continuity and a refined and self-critical process for producing policy analysis. A little-known self-study, Policy Analysis at OTA: A Staff Assessment (May 1993), discusses how the culture of OTA valued teams comprised of various disciplines. The assessment process, fortified by a bipartisan Technology Assessment Board, outside advisory panels, contractor reports, briefings, workshops, and extensive review by different stakeholders, largely succeeded in maintaining balance and holding individual agendas in check (albeit favoring federal intervention over market-driven and state-level solutions). At the core of the process were relatively autonomous teams composed of people who knew the policy landscape and were entrusted with designing and executing assessments from start to finish. OTA teams represented for the requesting committees one-stop shopping with an early-warning “issue navigation system” as standard equipment. Can this expertise be developed in other settings?

The lack of career opportunities to attract young people to study and work in policy analysis. As federal agency staffs and budgets shrink, policy analysis becomes a chief strong candidate for outsourcing. Despite the accountability demands posed by the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, policy offices are now skeletal, with resources for databases and timely analysis that are lean at best. But this may be a political as much as a budgetary issue: Are agency leaders inclined to commit to policy staff? If so, where will they come from? Or should analysis be routinely contracted out to those who understand neither the agency context nor the legislative landscape in which it functions? What are the tradeoffs? The American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellows Program, which began in the 1970s at about the same time that OTA was founded, has drawn scientists and engineers to federal service. Many stayed in agencies and on Capitol Hill; most returned to universities and more traditional careers after one- and two-year stints. Such programs, which provide critical experience and legitimacy to policy organizations, need to be expanded. If we do not replenish a cadre of S&T-savvy analysts, anecdotes will dominate policy debates. While the science community mulls about the composition of its future workforce, it must also help produce the next generation of S&T policy analysts and politically conscious citizens. Between public policy/administration programs and “science and technologyS&T studies” programs, there should be a diverse pool of potential analysts being trained and then connected, as a career choice, to the apparatus of federal policymaking.

The loss of OTA symbolized more than the end of a small congressional agency. With a distinctive process that served stakeholder interests in an open and participatory way, it was independent and anticipatory, client-centered, and tethered to the disciplinary knowledge bases that underlay both “policy for science” and “science for policy.” The staff, a dedicated and effective band of academic fugitives, Hill veterans, and public servants, kept the “national interest” front and center.

There is a vacuum to fill. The executive agencies, the Congress, and the judiciary all need organizations and staff that help them think.

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Cite this Article

Chubin, Daryl E. “Filling the Policy Vacuum Created by OTA’s Demise.” Issues in Science and Technology 17, no. 2 (Winter 2001).

Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter 2001