Bringing Sound Advice to Congress
by Matthew Madia
Feb 24, 2010
Many moons ago, Congress relied on facts, science, and other evidence to guide its thinking and make decisions. One repository for such information was the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an arm of Congress created in 1972 to enlighten lawmakers on new technological applications and emerging issues and, if appropriate, recommend ways to harness science and technology for the public good.
A new push to restore the OTA to its former glory is gaining momentum. The OTA has been defunct since 1995 when Newt Gingrich’s Congress successfully eliminated the office’s funding.
This morning, the House subcommittee in charge of Legislative Branch spending held a public hearing to discuss the FY 2011 budget, scheduled to begin Oct. 1, 2010. Restoring funding for the OTA was one of several issues on the docket.
Dr. Francesca Grifo, Senior Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, argued that Congress, and by extension the public, needs the OTA:
Members of Congress certainly do not lack for input, but in many situations they do lack credible and nonpartisan information that is structured in a way they can easily use. OTA was uniquely structured to provide credible information in the following areas:
While the analysis produced by OTA did not always drive congressional decision making, it did set boundaries to the debate, rule out some scientifically incorrect arguments, and help to frame political decisions in technically defensible ways.
- Unnecessary expenditure of taxpayer money on unproven technologies or other policies that are scientifically indefensible
- Early identification and analysis of technological issues before they became national Crises
- Evaluation of Executive Branch science and technology initiatives to aid Congress in its oversight duties.
By federal government standards, OTA doesn’t need a lot of money to get rolling. In FY 1995, its last full year of operation, OTA’s budget was $21 million. The office had a staff of 183.
“When OTA was operational, it more than earned its keep by identifying wasteful and ineffective programs and suggesting improvements to others,” Grifo said. For example:
A 1988 OTA study, “Healthy Children: Investing in the Future” pointed out the vulnerability of low birthweight infants to a variety of physical and mental disabilities. Its research concluded that expanding Medicaid eligibility to all pregnant women living in poverty would cost much less than the cost of $14,000 to $30,000 to treat the health problems of each low birthweight infants. That study helped change Medicaid eligibility rules by expanding access to prenatal care to millions of women in poverty.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is leading the charge to restore funding (go to www.ucsusa.org/ota for more). Dozens of leading public health, environmental, transparency, and good government advocacy organizations have signed onto a letter calling on Congress to restore funding. (Your organization can still sign on: Contact UCS.) A separate sign-on letter for the scientific community is also available.
We’ll have more as Congress begins to write the FY 2011 budget. Check back for opportunities to get involved.back to Blog