Since the beginning of modern science policy in the mid-20th century, the executive branch has taken the lead on supporting scientific research and relying on scientific expertise when making policy. Whatever the benefits of this arrangement—think NASA or the National Institutes of Health—it has often left Congress playing a perfunctory role in science policy, aside from footing the bill. Partly as a result, the Constitution’s First Branch has become less and less effective at exercising its lawmaking powers and conducting oversight. A recent bill about the law enforcement implications of encryption technology, for example, was widely criticized for its technical illiteracy (and did not pass).
There is an urgent need to strengthen Congress, and to do so, we must equip legislators with tools to grapple with the many political, social and ethical challenges posed by modern science and technology. As it happens, Congress created an agency for precisely this purpose in 1972. The Office of Technology Assessment was intended, in the words of Representative Emilio Quincy Daddario to provide “independent means of obtaining necessary and relevant technical information for the Congress, without having to depend almost solely on the executive branch.” Unfortunately, congressional Republicans killed the OTA in 1995 in an attempt to shrink government. This was a Pyrrhic victory: Shuttering the OTA—which consumed a minuscule fraction of the federal budget—deprived Congress of a valuable tool for overseeing, and reining in, the administrative state.
Staffed with civil servants, the OTA produced independent analysis on topics of scientific and technological interest by drawing on both in-house experts and outside expertise. The agency was not authorized to initiate its own research projects, doing so only at the request of a bipartisan and bicameral board, its director or committees. It covered a wide range of topics, from polygraph testing and defense technologies to pharmaceutical research and development and the science of nutrition. Crucially, OTA’s reports attempted to remain neutral, highlighting the various disputes within the relevant research communities and assessing the potential trade-offs of various policy prescriptions.
The OTA was not perfect, and reviving it today—which only requires appropriating funds, since the statute creating OTA was never repealed—would hardly be a panacea. Nor would it necessarily spur legislators to action. But, if managed prudently and nimbly, a 21st-century OTA could help shift the balance of power back toward our federal government’s most democratic branch.
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