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Should the Office of Technology Assessment be reinstated?

April 19, 2009

Wilson & Harsha (2008) point out that the mission of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was to help navigate “the intersection of technical and scientific issues with policymaking”. Prior to its demise, the OTA had sometimes produced reports that were ill-received by members of Congress in that they were critical of certain technologies espoused by the administration at the time and/or various politicians or their respective vested interests. As a result, critics began to question the need for another agency that would produce yet more reports and clog up Congressional progress with analysis. The closest thing to a revival occurred in 2008 when $2.5 million was set aside for a small technical assessment for the GAO, which purportedly has had similar responsibilities over the years.

Regardless of whether or not the OTA was always popular in its findings and assessments, the loss of the OTA has been viewed as a loss for science and technology (Wilson & Harsha, 2008) by many. Out of this comes no guarantee that Congress will do “the right thing” (Wilson & Harsha, 2009) even when presented with sound scientific evidence. In their article, Wilson & Harsha (2009) report regular complaints from the science and engineering community with regard to Congress’s failure to action in rational ways regarding new technologies and repeatedly the argument is made that “if they only had the right information, they’d make the right decision” (p. 28). Unfortunately, the authors also state they believe that the concept of self-preservation in the political arena is a much more salient convincer than a scientist or engineer with cutting edge analysis.

Despite new funding reserves set aside for the NIST, NSF and DOE encouraging advances in technology, science and mathematics education, the optimism of what the COMPETES Act was designed to do was offset by a move to ultimately decrease the amounts of money (relative to inflation) that actually went to these agencies (Wilson & Harsha, 2008). While the authors point out that reviving the OTA won’t ensure that Congress will act rationally about technology and science investments, they state that the cloud of partisan politics will be somewhat mitigated and the interests of the scientific community will once again have a voice. Whether or not that voice will be loud enough or effective enough is not necessarily the argument the authors intend to make, but they seem to agree that it gives advancements in science and technology a fighting chance toward rationality.

It is hard to say whether or not the OTA had distinct enough duties from those supposedly covered (in some small way) by the GAO and if there was sufficient overlap it would seem that an audit and subsequent report would be able to highlight gaps and redundancies. Presuming the overlap was small, the OTA then should be reinstated as science and technology is clearly a first priority in continuing the advancements of the U.S. on the world platform. We cannot do enough to instill these values in our students and if the U.S. doesn’t close the gap with other countries, it will clearly fall behind. Perhaps the OTA could assist in closing this gap, either directly or indirectly.

*****
Resources:
Wilson, C., & Harsha, P. (2008). IT Policy: Science Policy Isn’t Always About Science. Association for Computing Machinery. Communications of the ACM, 51(9), 27. Retrieved February 22, 2009, from Research Library database. (Document ID: 1554033191).

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 9, 2009 1:14 pm

    Your blog is so informative … ..I just bookmarked you….keep up the good work!!!!

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