Remembering the Death of the Office of Technology Assessment

This past week, Republican Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich tried to position himself as the big pro-science candidate (or, at the very least, the big “pro-idea” candidate) [1]. He articulated a science fiction view for the U.S. federal space agency, NASA, in partnership with private aerospace corporations. The goal? Establish a permanent colony on the moon by 2020.

I find it a little sad that this is the same man who presided over the death of a valued federal agency – the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) – in 1995.  As part of Gingrich’s “Contract with America” [2] and during his ascension to power in the U.S. Congress, Newt and his fellow Republicans organized the de-funding (and thus dismantling) of this office.

OTA is described as follows:

The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was an office of the United States Congress from 1972 to 1995. OTA’s purpose was to provide Congressional members and committees with objective and authoritative analysis of the complex scientific and technical issues of the late 20th century, i.e. technology assessment. It was a leader in practicing and encouraging delivery of public services in innovative and inexpensive ways, including distribution of government documents through electronic publishing. Its model was widely copied around the world. [3]

It’s work is archived at Princeton [4].

According to entries in the Congressional Record, abolishing the OTA saved the United States . . . $15 million dollars per year. As Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) put it during budget deliberations in 1995:

It is easy to go campaign next year and say, “I am for economy, and I got rid of the Office of Technology Assessment. That is saving $15 million.” Come on. Two nights ago ABC reported on a particular misguided missile, $4 billion. You never heard this crowd that is fussing about $15 million–we took almost 2 hours in the Appropriations Committee trying to save $15 million or trying to sustain the need to know of the Members of this Congress. But they do not talk about that $4 billion. [5]

It’s interesting how the fights don’t change in our country. Political battles always occupy the same space coordinates, only displaced in their time coordinate.

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) has blood on his hands when it comes to the death of the OTA. As he said in the same debate:

Mr. President, the Office of Technology Assessment is a luxury. It is something that would be nice to have if we had lots of money like we used to have. But we do not have the money that we used to have, and we have to look someplace to make cuts . . . The work the OTA does can be done by other agencies. I have had the OTA do work for me. They do fine work . . . But, Mr. President, we cannot have three luxury automobiles anymore . . . All we can have is the General Accounting Office and all we can have is the Congressional Research Service, which the congressional staff depends on around here to meet the requests of constituents at home and Members of the Senate. Our staffs depend on the Congressional Research Service. They did not depend on the Office of Technology Assessment. [5]

The short-sightedness of members of Congress astounds me, and it is largely independent of party although each party has its own special brands of anti-science. The money issue, however, is a universal weapon of mass destruction when it comes to science and basic research in the United States. That weapon sits so comfortably in the hand of every member of Congress that they do not hesitate to unleash it when they are under pressure to cut something from a budget.

Having unveiled some of the fight over OTA, what did Newt Gingrich have (if anything) to say about it? I have to admit – I couldn’t find a single thing, using only the web, that this man said about the OTA. I found plenty of articles or blog posts that report on Gingrich’s intentions based on interviews with his aides and associates from the 104th Congress (e.g. Ref. [6]). There is no doubt that, as Speaker of the 104th Congress, he was setting the agenda. There is also no doubt that Congress was looking to make cuts to government agencies, however small in cost, to demonstrate the seriousness of their intention to reduce the size and cost of government.

An office like OTA was designed to provide high-level assessments of the science behind different policy choices. An office like that would help now not only in issues like climate and energy policy, bit in assessing the feasibility and needs of science fiction space colonization plans for agencies like NASA. Without such a body, folks like Gingrich get to say what they want . . . and not have to worry about being assessed.

Next week, after Florida, the candidates will pander to another state. Florida has the so-called “space coast.” I suspect the moon plan will lie all but forgotten after their primary. I, however, will never forget the OTA and the need for sound science advising to inform national policies.

 

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/01/is-newts-moon-colony-fantasy-or-science-fiction/252147/

[2] http://www.house.gov/house/Contract/CONTRACT.html

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_of_Technology_Assessment

[4] http://www.princeton.edu/~ota/

[5] “Congressional Record: July 20, 1995 (Senate)” http://frwebgate2.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/TEXTgate.cgi?WAISdocID=Re267E/6/1/0&WAISaction=retrieve

[6] http://www.princeton.edu/step/seminars/previous/fall-2005/Mooneyreading2005No2Requiemforanoffice.pdf

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