Flunking Science

Today no one denies that technology plays a central role in the economy, foreign policy, and our daily lives. There’s genetically engineered food on our plates, cell phones attached to teenage ears, smart bombs searching for targets, and e-everything everywhere. That trend is reflected in action on Capitol Hill, where most bills contain at least inklings of science, medicine, or technology. Somehow, we have faith that our elected officials are up to the task of mastering all those issues and making informed decisions.

That might be an easy job for a polymath like retiring Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), but what about Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), a former wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks? How does former aerobics instructor Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.)–wife of the late Sonny–get up to speed on the latest ripples in nanotechnology before voting on the defense appropriations bill?

Most likely, they turn to interest-group lobbyists for a crash course on whatever issue is at hand. Or they read a few Newsweek articles collated by their staff and hope that the leadership looking for their votes understands the issues better than they do.

Few members of Congress have the educational background for understanding many of the complex issues now coming before them. In the wake of the November election, the number of members with science and technology training stands at an all-time high of 24, but that only constitutes five percent of the Congress. Not surprisingly, when it comes to issues of science and technology, Congress’ educational deficit is frequently glaring.

Before a recent budget hearing on the National Science Foundation, for instance, Rep. Vernon Ehlers happened to bump into a Republican colleague. He informed Ehlers of his intent to whack the appropriation, grumbling, “NSF has no business funding automatic teller machines and gambling.” Fortunately, Ehlers, whose doctorate in physics comes from University of California at Berkeley, quickly set him straight, explaining “ATMs and gaming theory” actually referred to Asynchronous Transfer Mode, a coding scheme in communications, and to mathematical approaches to probabilistic analysis. Those two hot research areas were more in tune with NSF’s mission, but without intervention from Ehlers, his colleague would have put them out.

Of course, the nature of democracy ensures that there will always be morons in Congress. But for those thoughtful legislators who recognize the gaps in their knowledge yet want to make educated decisions for the country, there’s not much help out there. No single agency is charged with cultivating the minds of Congress on complicated issues that rise above the average highway-funding bill.

It hasn’t always been like that. For more than 20 years, lawmakers seeking impartial analyses on emerging trends could turn to the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an agency once dubbed the “national defense against the dumb.” In its heyday, the 143-member congressionally chartered agency published, on average, 50 in-depth reports a year on subjects from biotechnology to global energy, and it was widely praised for its insightfulness and ability to explain all sides of a debate without picking one.

But in 1995, OTA became a casualty of the Republican “Contract with America,” as House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his minions sought to kill off an entire agency to demonstrate that they were serious about shrinking the government. Gingrich, the self-described futurist, apparently didn’t see much past the midterm election when he led Congress to disband its own technology think tank just as the country was experiencing an unprecedented high-tech boom. But the revolutionaries’ failure to distinguish between smart government agencies and superfluous ones has hurt Congress. OTA filled a critical need, and no viable alternative has arisen to adequately plug the knowledge gap left in its absence.

Since OTA’s demise, Congress has grappled with issues ranging from the Internet explosion to biologically engineered corn to the ethical implications of Dolly the cloned sheep–and the effects have been hit and miss.

“In order to vote intelligently or craft legislation, you must understand science and technology, and understanding scientific trends in this fast-moving world of ours is very difficult,” admits Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), whose family founded Corning, the nation’s leading fiber optics company, 150 years ago. “I mean, I can vote on anything, but I can vote like an idiot.”

Fortunately, some members of Congress are considering reviving the old OTA in some form or another. If history is any indication, though, the push for such an agency promises to be an unnecessarily partisan battle–one that won’t draw much support from industry, whose influence on members of Congress might be muted if members had an outlet for unbiased information.

But if the party of President George W. Bush is really serious about showing its moderate, smart side, passing a bill reauthorizing the OTA would be a good place to start. As former OTA Director John H. Gibbons points out, “If you take the simple truism that science and technology now dominate our lives and our nation’s future, that alone should tell you that those who are charged with governance need the capacity to access national wisdom in their formulation and decision making on public policy. And without OTA or its equivalent, they are in the dark without a floodlight.”

Congress launched OTA in 1972 after a slew of acrid debates on topics ranging from the antiballistic missile treaty to DDT to supersonic transport. Frustrated lawmakers suddenly realized they had nowhere to shop for unbiased information, fully independent from the executive branch. With $5 million in funding, the fledgling OTA aspired, according to the law, “to provide early indications of the probable beneficial and adverse impacts of the applications of technology.”

The legislation set up a bipartisan board of six senators and six representatives, equally split along party lines, to oversee OTA’s activities. Once the board or a committee officially requested a study, OTA would assemble a project team to scour the literature, let contracts, and organize workshops. Mindful of keeping both sides happy, instead of pushing a specific policy, OTA reports outlined alternatives, spelling out pros and cons of each option.

Despite its well-reasoned mandate, OTA faced a near-death experience early thanks to partisan politics. For starters, many Republicans feared OTA might espouse an anti-technology bias and branded it the “Office of Technology Harassment.” Many also feared OTA would unfairly fuel the political machinery of one of its greatest champions, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

In 1977, Republicans smeared the office as Kennedy’s plaything and pared its budget by more than 20 percent. The jousting began when New York Times columnist William Safire charged that Kennedy ousted its first director, Emilio Q. Daddario, in a campaign to “take over” OTA. Daddario, a former Democratic representative from Connecticut, drafted the original legislation but resigned to run for governor before its passage. In truth, he had planned a short stint at the top from the get-go–just long enough to establish his brainchild.

Kennedy’s longtime assistant and OTA program manager, Ellis Mottur, was a logical choice to fill the slot. In time, Mottur withdrew from consideration and a Republican, former Delaware governor and industrial chemist Russell Peterson, was installed as the next director. Peterson cleanly depoliticized the agency by banning board members’ staff from being housed at OTA. His term, however, would be short-lived. Peterson left 15 months later to lead the National Audubon Society.

When Gibbons, a physicist and Oak Ridge National Laboratory veteran, came on board, OTA still needed life support. Gibbons, who had previously served as a Nixon appointee as the first director of the Federal Office of Energy Conservation, recalls that after his swearing in ceremony in 1979, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) shook his hand and said, “You’re the last chance this organization has to survive.”

Soon afterwards, OTA came under fire in Donald Lambro’s 1980 treatise, Fat City: How Washington Wastes Your Taxes, as one of 100 federal programs recommended for abolition. Citing the gripes of many on the Hill, Lambro penned: “In practice, the agency’s studies have proven to be duplicative, frequently shoddy, not altogether objective, and often ignored.” On Gibbons’ watch, such perceptions would wholly change.

By the mid-to-late ’80s, the OTA had established itself as a fount of technological reason. The doctorate-rich agency, nestled in a Colonial-style brick building a javelin’s throw from the Capitol dome, came to take meticulous care in generating its studies. It assembled myriad advisory panels to ensure fairness and authority. Typically, 100 reviewers scrutinized each report.

While OTA studied complex scientific and technological issues, it presented them in a format lay people could understand, and its reports never overlooked the human implications of technology. In its famous report on infertility treatments, for instance, OTA wrote: “It is 2 p.m. You are sitting with your wife in the doctor’s office, waiting to be told what to do next to get your wife pregnant. You gave a semen sample two days ago to some lab person. You are sure that humiliating experience was just the beginning of many more. You are wondering how bad your sperm are.”

That’s not the stuff of your average General Accounting Office (GAO) report. The difference stemmed largely from a staff that was not just a bunch of pointy-headed engineers and scientists. When The Washington Monthly wrote about OTA in 1989, the agency staff included a guy with degrees in religious studies and forestry, a computer whiz with advanced degrees in forestry and soil science who was a lawyer and one of the world’s leading oceanographers, and a registered nurse with a Ph.D. in philosophy.

That staff also supplemented its broad range of knowledge with a penchant for doing what few students of government ever do–getting out of the office. A researcher investigating truck safety once learned how to drive an 18-wheeler, and then sent one of her analysts out on a four-day cross-country trip with a driver. The resulting report reflected knowledge gleaned from that trip–including the revelation that government rest requirements had fallen victim to trucking company deadlines.

Consequently, OTA’s independent-minded studies and testimony by its authors helped shape laws and budgets pertaining to everything from information technology to arms control to health care to biotech. OTA weighed in on debates over the 1980 Energy Security Act, Clean Air Act, Foreign Assistance Act, and Superfund legislation, among many others. Its reports, with titles like “Access to Space,” “High Performance Computing,” “Passive Smoking,” and “Facing America’s Trash,” often prompted policy changes.

Time and again, both sides of the aisle quoted from OTA reports, illustrating the agency’s objectivity. For example, more than a decade before the Oklahoma bombing, OTA issued a report, referenced during the floor debate by Democrats and Republicans alike, on the prospect of requiring chemical markers (called taggants) in explosives to readily trace their sources. More recently, the phenomenon occurred during the high-profile debates over the North American Free Trade Agreement and Oregon’s Medicaid program.

Eventually, an OTA report’s release became a news event in itself. Select journalists were sent advance copies, and the committee chair who commissioned a given report frequently called a news conference. Now and then, OTA’s findings were read aloud before a joint House and Senate committee meeting. As a result of the thousands of news stories generated each year, the public–not just Congress–became more informed. The reports were often bestsellers at the Government Printing Office as well.

In retrospect, some OTA reports seem especially prescient. For instance, a 1975 take on oil transportation, more than a decade before the Exxon Valdez debacle, found “fitting double bottoms or double hulls on tankers offers a significant degree of protection from oil pollution.” In 1980, years before NBC anchor Katie Couric’s campaign in honor of her late husband, OTA examined the benefits of screening for colon cancer. A later report in 1995, also predating Couric, found colorectal cancer screening in average-risk adults to be cost effective and a “relatively good investment for society.”

Some of its most influential–and most controversial–reports were on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). A 1988 report generated a rash of front-page stories and unmasked the technical infeasibility of the project to the public. Among its criticisms, OTA found, “there would always be” irresolvable questions about the dependability of Star Wars software. Although the administration and Pentagon officials pushed for its retraction, OTA refused to cower. “People called it ‘Reagan’s dream’ for good reason,” says Gibbons.

OTA’s glory days continued under Gibbons’ successor Roger C. Herdman, a physician and a Republican, who took the reins in 1993. Between 1992 and 1994, a dozen OTA assessments won the National Association for Government Communicators’ prestigious Blue Pencil Award and another dozen made the American Library Association’s list of notable government documents culled from federal, state, and local documents around the world. Some reports, though five to 15 years old, are still cited today. For example, “OTA’s report on the cost of prescription drugs is still a model,” says Herdman, now at the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine.

Despite its solid reputation for conducting credible, nonpartisan studies of technological issues, OTA suffered from accusations of partisan tinkering. “OTA was vulnerable to the charge that we were a Democratic agency because requests generally came from committee chairmen,” says Vary Coates, a former senior OTA analyst who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the agency. “It wasn’t our fault the chairmen were Democratic for most of OTA’s existence.” That Gibbons jumped from OTA head in 1993 to become Bill Clinton’s chief science advisor didn’t do much to dispel the perception of OTA partisanship.

In 1994, when Republicans swept Congress, OTA went up on the chopping block. Without ever reading a single OTA report, many freshmen riding the 1994 Republican Revolution into office erased it from the House budget bill. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and loyal ally Robert Walker (R-Penn.), who ruled the House Science Committee, tower as the biggest villains in the minds of the OTA faithful. Deposed OTA director Herdman says, “The speaker had his own ideas about what he wanted to do with science, and he didn’t want anything that would conflict with those.”

The $22 million agency made an easy mark as a symbol of Congress’ willingness to sacrifice its own appendage. Its larger and older cousins, the GAO, established in 1921, and the Congressional Research Service (CRS), in 1913, had devout followings. Even though the Congressional Budget Office was established in 1974, two years after OTA, it had quickly cultivated a broader constituency. OTA guided Congress with an invisible hand, and while its low-profile, nonpartisan stance strengthened its advisory capacity, it failed at self-promotion and credit mongering that would have countered arguments that OTA was too slow to be useful.

Walker, who now heads the D.C.-based Wexler Group, contends lack of timelessness proved to be the agency’s fatal flaw. “It couldn’t keep up. By the time their reports would come out, the legislative issues would have been resolved,” he says.

Rather than fix what they saw as a problem, though, Republican leaders just threw the baby out with the bathwater. Raging like Ned Ludd against 19th-century machinery, OTA’s detractors never bothered with nuances. Had they done so, they might have discovered that OTA epitomized smart government.

Many Republicans also hadn’t forgotten OTA’s report assailing SDI, Reagan’s pet program. “OTA made a lot of enemies with that SDI report,” says Michael Rodemeyer, a former minority legislative director of the House Science Committee, now executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

Houghton, a Republican who was arguably OTA’s staunchest supporter in the House, attempted to rescue the agency by transferring it under the Library of Congress (which houses CRS). The Librarian of Congress, James Billington, however, lobbied against the move fearing the agency might jeopardize library funding. In the end, the Senate Appropriations Committee narrowly voted down the measure. Efforts to resuscitate the agency on the Senate floor and in the conference committee also failed. OTA was dismantled in September 1995.

A mellowing Gingrich now denies killing OTA for partisan reasons. In his new roles as web guru (www.Newt.org), and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Gingrich doesn’t deny that elected officials need to be educated on pertinent technical issues. He just doesn’t like the idea of the government doing the educating. “The concept of science really matters,” Gingrich stresses. “There are just better ways to get the job done.” Legislators need to have direct discussions with scientists and engineers, Gingrich says, arguing that using OTA as an intermediary made Congress more insular.

Gingrich now has his own plan for filling the OTA void. He says he seeks “to bring the best people in the world together” to blend technology and policy. He just wants to rely on the wisdom of existing groups formed in the cauldron of the marketplace. His recipe calls for a mechanism to build a strong relationship between Congress and the National Academies, the nation’s most elite scientists, engineers, and doctors. Moreover, scientists from federal agencies like NASA and the NSF and such nonprofits as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) would be brought into the fold. And who would coordinate this cacophony of intelligent highmindedness? He suggests the House Science Committee, which, if you know the size of its staff and its existing workload, isn’t especially comforting.

As Ehlers’ experience demonstrates, relying on existing bodies to educate Congress isn’t working too well so far. It’s no surprise, really. Anybody who reads Ann Landers would know that solely relying on members of Congress to consult directly with engineers is a formula for disaster. For the most part, techies and politicos don’t speak a common language. And core human values often get lost in translation, since techies aren’t necessarily charged with considering the broader social implications associated with their work.

The only institution that regularly churns out missives with the equivalent heft of the OTA are the National Academies. The Academies have already become a sort of refuge for OTA exiles. Former directors Gibbons, Herdman, and several assistant directors have signed on. But Academy reports are no faster in coming than OTA’s, and they are written in a more academic style. Although influential, they often stop at the scientific findings or suggest a few structural alterations instead of taking it all the way to the policy level. “The products are different,” says Jim Jensen, director of NAS’s Office of Congressional and Governmental Affairs and a former OTA deputy.

In addition, the Academies are not immune to professional biases. Case in point: A long-overdue report released last spring on plants genetically modified to ward off pests thrilled industry leaders and agricultural groups. It found no evidence that biotech foods already inundating the marketplace are unsafe.

But various activists protested outside the Academy. Among them was Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) who charged that the 12-member Academy committee that fashioned the report was “tainted” by conflicts of interest. Several panelists previously accepted funds from the biotech industry. Another had provided legal services to biotech kingpin Monsanto. And the study’s first director departed midway to take a job with BIO, the leading industry trade group.

In the end, private groups will never wield the legitimacy of a government agency that is unsullied by commercial interests. For all these reasons, a steadfast core believes a successor to the OTA serves the national interest. Not only is momentum emerging to promote this, but many original OTA slayers in Congress have exited voluntarily or have been voted out of office. M. Granger Morgan, head of Carnegie Mellon University’s department of engineering and public policy, is organizing a forum in late spring or early summer to jump start “a serious national conversation” on the issue. He’s secured $45,000 from the MacArthur Foundation and the Heinz Family Endowment to propose and evaluate potential models.

Because the authorizing legislation is still on the books, however, the simplest route for revival would be refunding the former agency. Rep. Kucinich’s staff investigated the OTA idea last summer, but the relative newcomer from Ohio hasn’t made any commitments. OTA warhorse Sen. Kennedy, not surprisingly, is hopeful that this year “Congress can reach a bi-partisan agreement to resurrect OTA.”

Republicans should get over their blanket opposition to government and get on the OTA bandwagon–or get left behind. Even the public is starting to sense that technology is a relentless, burgeoning force probably every bit as influential in their lives as Congress itself. Any steps that lessen Congress’s savvy in managing its complexity may place one of democracy’s greatest institutions at risk of obsolescence. Given that the federal government is spending scores of billions a year on science and technology, $22 million for OTA seems a paltry price to pay for understanding. “There’s an enormous opportunity to be guided by scientific knowledge. That can only come out of a group like [OTA],” Houghton says.

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