Bring in the Nerds: Reviving the Office of Technology Assessment

america-technology-policy

The attached policy study was co-authored by Zach Graves, Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at R Street.

Congress is struggling to keep up with the pace of technological innovation. It needs help. Congress should bring back the Office of Technology Assessment, the nonpartisan corps of nerds who helped it from 1972-1995.

Top Points

  1. The Office of Technology Assessment produced 750 assessments and research products to help Congress better understand new technologies.
  2. Elected officials rarely have expertise in technology. To make smart policy, they need help.
  3. Congress defunded the Office of Technology Assessment right before the Internet became ubiquitous. Doh!
  4. Failure to understand complex technologies invites techno-panics and bad policymaking.
  5. The congressional debates around online piracy and encryption were often embarrassingly ill-informed.
  6. Only a handful of the congressmen who voted to defund the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995 remain in Congress.
  7. Refunding the Office of Technology Assessment is not a partisan issue—it’s a matter of congressional capacity.

 

Executive Summary

Recent decades have brought astonishing developments in technology. The Internet, smartphones, cloud computing and geolocation—to name only a few—have  transformed our daily lives, propelled global improvements to the human condition and solidified America’s top position in the global economy.

What’s more, this “innovation revolution” is not over. In the decades to come, we expect to see additional breakthrough advances in artificial intelligence, autonomous transportation, advanced manufacturing and health technology, as well as in areas we are not yet able to anticipate.

Without a doubt, these developments will create new challenges and externalities, and will emerge in ways that disrupt existing legal frameworks, social norms and incumbent industries. If unchecked, panic and backlash over such disruptions (whether real or imagined) will lead to heavy-handed laws and regulations or harmful carve-outs that will depress the social and economic benefits of innovation. Additionally, if the overall regulatory climate becomes too hostile, America’s innovators and investors are increasingly able to pick up and go elsewhere.

Despite the social and economic importance of science and innovation, policymakers are not always well equipped to understand and meet the associated challenges head-on. This problem is particularly conspicuous in the United States Congress, which serves an essential function through the crafting of legal frameworks for new technologies.

Following short-sighted reforms in the mid-1990s that were built around “Cutting Congress First,” the First Branch has lacked the staffing and expertise to handle the increasingly technical nature of contemporary science and technology debates. These cuts included an overall reduction in congressional staff, as well as the outright elimination of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) – an expert advisory agency that served as a think tank within Congress from 1972 to 1995, and made important contributions to shaping technology policy in the United States and abroad.

Accordingly, this paper assesses what Congress needs to strengthen its ability to understand and engage in these debates, and discusses the role of the legislative branch’s expert advisory agencies and the current state of congressional capacity. It then examines the history and politics of the OTA and its former impact, presents arguments for and against its revival, and evaluates its political viability to argue that in order to build the capacity to successfully meet the next wave of technology policy debates, Congress needs to revive the in-house expertise and in-depth research functions of the Office of Technology Assessment.

 

Technology Assessment Process Chart

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Top image credit: Mmaxer

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