Is Congress Getting the S&T Analysis It Needs?

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Publication date: 
28 August 2006

"We do not suffer from a lack of information here on Capitol Hill, but from a lack of ability to glean the knowledge and to gauge the validity, credibility, and usefulness of the large amounts of information and advice received on a daily basis." - Rep. Rush Holt

On July 25, the House Science Committee heard from Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and four other witnesses that Congress lacks an effective mechanism for sorting through the vast amounts of scientific and technical information that it receives on many issues, and identifying various policy options and their ramifications. They discussed the sources of S&T policy analysis currently available to Congress, as well as the benefits and shortcomings of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a congressional support office that conducted such analyses from 1972 until 1995, when its funding was terminated as a budget-cutting measure.

The purpose of the OTA, Holt said, was to "inform the policy debate with assiduous and objective analysis of the policy consequences of alternative courses of action" and consider "the various outcomes given particular policy choices," without making any recommendations. When OTA was eliminated, Members of Congress believed "technical assessment could come . . . through committee hearings, CRS reports, experts in our district, think tanks, and the National Academy of Sciences," he said. "In the ten years . . . [since the OTA was eliminated] we have not gotten what we need in order to do the people's work." Holt has been active in trying to resurrect some version of the technology assessment office. However, witnesses and Members alike acknowledged that negative perceptions of OTA's timeliness and responsiveness would make reviving it a difficult task. Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), who had supported OTA, remarked, "I think we need to get beyond the debate about reviving" it. He also pointed out that in many cases the problem was not that Congress lacked sound analyses, but that it did not have the political will to make the appropriate policy decisions. "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink," he said.

"Much of the information we receive comes from advocates selling their point of view," said Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN), adding that Congress could certainly use an in-house entity to help "in sorting through the conflicting expert opinions." Of the other sources of policy analysis available to Congress, Jon Peha of Carnegie Mellon University noted that broad, comprehensive assessment of S&T topics was beyond the traditional purview of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Peter Blair of the National Academy of Sciences explained that while Congress relies heavily on the National Academies and the associated National Research Council (NRC) for their reports on S&T issues, the NRC generally uses a time-consuming process to form a committee of expert volunteers who review the issue and present consensus recommendations. This process, Blair said, "is less well equipped to elaborate on the broader context of an issue" and analyze "the policy consequences of alternative courses of action, especially those that may involve value judgments and trade-offs." He suggested that the NRC might be able to expand its role to take on that type of analysis. Blair and others also had positive comments about a pilot program of technology assessment by GAO, but warned that such a program would have to compete for resources with GAO's more traditional role.

"Do adequate resources exist for Congress to address these issues? From our perspective, the answer is no," declared Al Teich of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). "Information is abundant, but objective, timely, policy-relevant analyses, which is what Congress really needs, are in short supply." Teich and Catherine Hunt of the American Chemical Society described efforts by scientific societies to inform Congress, including briefings, testimony, letters, reports, and other interactions.

Boehlert and other members of the committee praised the AAAS for its Science and Technology Policy Fellowships as a valuable source of S&T advice for Congress. Through this program, many scientific societies sponsor scientists and engineers to spend a year in Washington, providing expertise to the federal government (see for details on such Fellowships, including two run by the American Institute of Physics). Speaking "on behalf of the entire committee, both sides," Boehlert called the Fellowships "a wonderful program, warmly embraced by all." While some former Fellows stay on Capitol Hill to aid Congress as permanent staffers, he noted, others return to the scientific community with a better appreciation for how the political process works. That is "good for science," Boehlert said, "because I find that in most instances . . . scientists are not effective at lobbying for their interests."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) criticized the OTA for being a slow, inefficient, added layer of bureaucracy. He instead advocated the use of outside consultants, and having "people on both sides of a scientific issue debating it here in front of us." Teich responded that the many competing sources of information are "part of the problem." Boehlert and Gordon defended the OTA's record, saying that it never received sufficient resources to respond promptly to all the requests it received. Citing a list of OTA reports, Holt said they were so timely and relevant that many are still useful today.

Gordon asked the pros and cons of resurrecting OTA; all agreed that any new technology assessment organization should learn the lessons of OTA and react more nimbly, interact more regularly with congressional staff, provide more interim results, and collaborate with other congressional support agencies and outside experts. Rep. Al Green (D-TX) questioned how such an entity could avoid becoming a victim of a "shoot the messenger" reaction if it produced analyses that one party or other did not like. Holt stated that it must be "scrupulously nonpartisan," and Peha recommended that it receive funding for more than one year at a time and have careful oversight of how topics for analysis were chosen, to ensure that both the majority and minority "feel their issues are represented."

After OTA's demise "we have made due, not particularly well, but not particularly badly either" said Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) in closing. He concurred with the value of an organization like OTA, and wished Holt luck in reviving it, but warned that it would be hard work "to make it come about."