Bring Back the OTA III – A history of the OTA

Chris Mooney has been nice enough to help promote our effort, and points us to some more helpful information about the Office of Technology Assessment. Now would be a good time to go over what the OTA did, how it was set up, and why I think it would be rather easy to set it up again as a non-partisan scientific body. To help people understand why this office was important, let’s go through a history of the body, much of which I’ve culled from Bruce Bimber’s “The Politics of Expertise in Congress”.

Founding and Mission of the OTA
The OTA was founded in 1972 to counter more political bodies of expertise, like the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) which explicitly serve to advance the executive’s policy goals and lack objectivity or rather political neutrality. While in its early years it was not politically pure, it was remarkable among Congressional agencies in that it became less politicized over time. From Bimber:

Even the most naive observer of politics expects advisors to presidents, senators, and agency heads to be “biased” in favor of their bosses. But the simplicity of this theory is also its downfall–it merely predicts that degree of politicization increases with time, and cannot speak to cases where expert organizations might grow less politicized over time, or where agencies might exhibit different degrees of politicization. The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), created explicitly as an analogue to PSAC for Congress, was highly politicized in its first half-dozen years of operation. It was widely viewed as dedicated to a narrow set of political interests, and its technical credibility suffered as a result. But OTA evolved over time to be less politicized; it became less partisan, less parochial, and more credible as a neutral provider of expertise. The agency exhibited an unmistakable trend from high toward lower politicization. (p20)

The Technology Assessment Act of 1972 initially defined a more limited role for the agency. It “assigned the agency a mission of providing neutral, competent assessments about the probable beneficial and harmful effects of new technologies.” (Bimber p26) The goal of the agency was to help craft policy to mitigate the negative effects of new technology while maximizing benefit from new science and knowledge.

The governing structure of the OTA was unique for a Congressional office. It was designed to minimize partisan input, and restrict the OTA from developing its own policy goals.

The bill, much of which had been drafted by Harvey Brooks, called for an agency to be constituted around a board of directors comprised of legislators, private citizens, the head of the Congressional Research Service (the Legislative Reference Service prior to the 1970 reorganization act), and the Comptroller General. An amendment by Rep. Jack Brooks, who feared too much influence might accrue to those on the board from outside the legislature, dropped non-congressional membership on the board, leaving a body of twelve legislators to control the new agency. Brooks used an old phrase to describe to his colleagues what he felt the relationship between experts and politicians should be, saying he wanted the experts to be “on tap, not on top.” (Bimber p27-28)

This structure also limited the influence of individual Congressmen on the types of reports that the OTA could make by only allowing reports to be commissioned by committee chairs. This limited the independence of the OTA, beneficially I think, and limited the influence that individual congressman could have on OTA studies (in other words the OTA wouldn’t necessarily have to make reports for any crank in congress interested in their private agenda). Bimber points out this eventually proved problematic, as the number of members with a vested interest in the OTA was decreased – it was largely a tool that could be used by committee chairs. So one must note that if it were to be re-established one must emphasize the importance of the OTA to the Congress (and the country) as a whole even if individual members may not see a direct benefit.

Ultimately what was created was an office designed to provide expertise to committee chairs on policy, governed by a board of directors that had equal contribution of legislators from both parties to minimize any appearance of the office serving as a tool of a single party.

OTA board members were appointed by the Speaker and Senate President pro tempore, on the recommendations of the majority and minority leaders of each chamber. In addition to stipulating equal representation between parties, OTA’s authorizing legislation also provided that the position of board chair and vice-chair would rotate between chambers. In practice, the board observed a tradition of giving the chair to a member of the majority party in the chamber to which the position was assigned. (Bimber p29)

How was the Agency Administered

A striking feature of the OTA was how limited its bureaucracy and costs were. 75% of the permanent staff were researchers, and additional researchers were recruited or contracted for special projects from a mixture of sources – industrial and academic. In its last year of operation, 1995, its budget was 22 million dollars, a tiny sum given the value of having such an excellent source of expertise available to Congress. Its elimination was clearly an example of being “penny-wise pound-foolish”.

What did they accomplish?

The agency composed reports for congressional committees on the order of about 20 a year. The selling point, I think, of re-establishing the OTA is the degree of excellence that these reports represented on science, technology, and how they should influence policy.
From Chris Mooney’s article in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists .

OTA’s 24-year body of work encompasses some 750 reports and assessments
on topics ranging from acid rain to global climate change to the accuracy of polygraphs. Perhaps because the office vetted these documents so stringently, they have aged quite well. Some, on subjects like bioterrorism, even seem eerily prescient today. Following the anthrax attacks of late 2001, for example, a report prepared on behalf of Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina noted that OTA had studied the number of spores required to produce inhalation (or pulmonary) anthrax almost a decade earlier.

Imagine that. An office in Congress that actually had predictive power for confronting problems in the future. It is truly a catastrophe that this office was eliminated.

Chris also discusses the importance of the OTA in evaluating government projects, such as SDI (or Star Wars), which the office rightly predicted would just be a multi-billion dollar boondoggle. History has certainly proven that prediction correct, but it was just this type of honest assessment that sadly gained the OTA detractors among conservatives that saw the agency as sometimes at odds with their policy goals.

But it wasn’t just reports that made the agency valuable. It’s clear that the agency also served as a source of personal access to scientific expertise for members of Congress.

One key to conveying the product of this “thinking” to an institution flooded with reports and studies of all kinds was the personal contacts that OTA analysts built with congressional staff. Just as personal relationships provide access for lobbyists attempting to make their cases on Capitol Hill, so did such contacts provide the basis for much dissemination of policy expertise from OTA to Congress. This style of communication meant that OTA was most successful when it could present its work to members and staff with a personal face. Congressional staff often pointed out that they relied on specific individuals at OTA whom they trusted, as well as on the reputation of the organization as a whole. Most staff whose committees used OTA studies claimed that personal contacts, telephone calls, meetings, and briefings were just as important if not more so than written reports. (Bimber 35)

The value of such relationships can not be understated. The OTA brought scientists into the legislative branch, not only to provide lengthy reports (which might go largely unread, or worse, be cherry-picked by members), but also to serve as sources of expert scientific information and advice directly to members of congress. This information was most effective when it went into the formulation of bills, and it was understood that the most important function of the OTA wasn’t to provide talking points during congressional debate, but rather to ensure that the bills that eventually made it to the floor were worth debating.

A good illustration of this role for expertise in policy-making involves a bill marked up in a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs in 1980. The bill was intended to require chemical marking of commercial explosives during the manufacturing process, in order to aid law enforcement agencies in investigating bombings. OTA was asked to research the utility of such a program, which was strongly opposed by explosives manufacturers. When the agency described three alternatives for legislative action in its study, the subcommittee considering the bill structured its report around the agency alternatives, voting explicitly among “OTA Option 1,” “OTA Option 2,” and “OTA Option 3.”

What is important about this case is that legislators in the subcommittee did not base their choices among options on the basis of the analysis, nor were votes on the floor decided on the basis of the study. OTA’s role was to help define the nature of the problem, to provide technical legitimation of various responses to it. The agency contributed to the structure for choice, rather than to judgments about how to choose. This function, although rarely in such a bald form, was characteristic of the agency’s participation in the policy process, and legislators’ interests in controlling this function established the basic set of incentives to which the agency responded.(Bimber p39)

Finally, from the perspective of denialism blog, Chris Mooney illustrates what we believe was one of the most important functions of the OTA.

From today’s vantage point, however, amid increasing controversies over the politicization of science and the disregard for expertise, the decision to do away with OTA appears less dumb than calculated. OTA scrupulously avoided making explicit policy recommendations, but its reports did sift through expert disagreements, rule out fringe scientific views, and challenge implausible technological assertions (including those associated with SDI). Gibbons once even described the agency’s staff as blessed with “good bulls— detectors.”27 In OTA’s absence, however, the new Republican majority could freely call upon its own favorable scientific “experts” and rely upon more questionable and self-interested analyses prepared by lobbyists, think tanks, and interest groups.recommendations, but its reports did


So there you have it. In the early 70s a need was seen for independent expert advice for congress that wasn’t biased like the sources from the executive branch. Today, one can see how this is more pressing as the number of “experts” and lobbyists that advise congress has expanded greatly, and their biases and independence are, if anything, more in question than ever. In response to this need for politically neutral expertise, the OTA was created. And rather than serving as yet another name to drop during debate, actually allowed intelligent policy to be crafted in the first place. The reports that were created, and the access to a body of independent experts were invaluable for the formulation of intelligent policy. And as Chris Mooney has said, the removal of this office was indeed “a a stunning act of self lobotomy”, one that allows crank views to have equal weight with legitimate scientific findings.

As before we ask if you have a blog link this post (and feel free reproduce any of these posts on your blog), sign the petition to reinstate the OTA, and contact your senator or congressman about having this office re-funded.

Links so far:
PZ at Pharyngula
John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts
Major Geek’s LiveJournal
Ordinary Girl at Tales of an Ordinary Girl
John Pieret at Thoughts in a Haystack
Dave Bruggeman at Prometheus writing a month ago
Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub
Alex at the Yorkshire Ranter
Measured Against Reality
One Good Move
La Pobre Habladora at Second Innocence
Dan at Migrations
Mike Dunford at Questionable Authority – with links to presidential campaigns!
Jeremy Elton Jacquot at TreeHugger
Epicanis at the Big Room
Blue Sky Mining
Brian Thomas at Carbon-Based
Bora at Blog Around the Clock
suddenly south at the Cucking Stool
Geoff Davis at Engineering and Science Blog
Amanda at Enviroblog
Kate at Anterior Commissure
Chris Mooney at the Intersection
Paul Hutchinson at Paul Hutchinson’s Blog
Kent at Uncommon Ground
DOF at Decrepit Old Fool

1. Bimber, Bruce A. The politics of expertise in Congress : the rise and fall of the Office of Technology Assessment. State University of New York Press, 1996.