bc on Wed, 7 Aug 2002 22:29:57 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> reviving Office of Technology Assessment

/ in 1995 the Gingrich revolution canceled the OTA, which was
/ a checks-and-balances upon science and technology decision-
/ making and public policy (and knowledge) about such things.
/ a wirednews article is running today which states that .US
/ representative Holt (democrat, New Jersey) is working on a
/ reassessment of having canceled this program. the complexity
/ of science and technology were able to be argued/debated on
/ shared facts and with balanced analyses which could not be
/ as easily distorted by politicians for reasons other than
/ the economic, social, and political welfare of .US citizens.
/ in return, issues like cryptography, surveillance systems,
/ whether carnivore, echelon, cams and eyescans, ID cards, and
/ other decision-making goes unchecked with regard to the more
/ complex dynamics of such pursuits, such as, future impacts.
/ instead, it seems litigation is the retroactive attempt to
/ bring accountability to such, at times, technically rogue
/ developments. for fair and balanced reviews of sci-tech,
/ please consider writing in support of this effort, at:
/ http://holt.house.gov/feedback.cfm?campaign=holt&type=Contact%20Rush

Congress Reassesses Tech Office

By Dan Mitchell

2:00 a.m. Aug. 7, 2002 PDT
 From Wired News, available online at:

WASHINGTON -- When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the
Republicans cut off funding for the Office of Technology Assessment
in 1995, the move seemed capricious to scientists who felt the office
did nothing less than help legislators make informed decisions.

The OTA's mission was to provide unbiased scientific and technical
information to members of Congress to help them make well-informed
decisions on complicated matters, and the office was widely lauded
for doing just that.

One researcher said that by eliminating the OTA, Congress had "decided
to lose weight by cutting off its brain."

A bipartisan effort to resurrect the office at its former funding
level of $20 million has been held up in committee for more than a
year. Given how important the technological aspects of national
security have become, and given that outside the GOP leadership there
is no real opposition to a revived OTA, it might come as a surprise
that the legislation is being blocked.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) introduced a bill last year to revive
the office, but the bill never got out of committee. Last month, Holt
tried to attach a vastly scaled back version of his proposal to a
budget bill. It would have authorized $4 million to fund a few
scientists and staffers in a sort of mini-OTA with hopes of future
growth. The House Rules Committee blocked a floor vote on the matter.

Holt, some of his colleagues, and a fair number of scientists say it's
blocked because GOP House leaders are simply afraid of unbiased
scientific analysis that might conflict with their political agendas.

"Unbiased information does not serve ideologues well, either on the
right or the left," says Matthew Bunn, until recently the assistant
director of the science, technology and public policy program at
Harvard's Kennedy School.

The OTA drew praise for helping congressmen from both parties
understand the effect of greenhouse gases on global warming, the
benefits and economic drawbacks of fuel-efficiency standards for
motor vehicles, and the enormous expense and technical obstacles
associated with missile-defense programs like the Strategic Defense
Initiative. They even did work on terrorism-related issues as far
back as the early '80s.

Supporters say the office, which was created solely to serve Congress,
never made policy recommendations. It simply laid out the facts. The
Republicans who led the effort to cut off the OTA's funding charged
that the office operated with a left-wing bias. But the OTA usually
presented the positives and negatives from both sides of debated

"The charge of bias never held water, and every case held up under
scrutiny," says Jack Gibbons, who served as the OTA's director from
1979 to 1992. The current GOP leadership, he says, is hewing to the
"old politics" of the mid-'90s "Republican Revolution."

If the Republicans would let go of politics, they would see that an
OTA or an OTA-like body could be of enormous help in terms of
national security, Bunn says. "It could help Congress understand,
say, the power infrastructure of the United States, or what would
happen if a chemical plant were attacked."

House leaders are keeping the proposal from a floor vote for "purely
ideological" reasons, says Holt spokesman Jim Capsis. "Four million
dollars is such a pittance. What are they going to give you, the 'big
government' argument?"

The offices of House Majority Leader Dick Armey and House Majority
Whip Tom Delay did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

One measure of the OTA's chances may be gleaned from the stance of the
leading Republican co-sponsor of Holt's bill, New York's Sherwood
Boehlert, chairman of the House Science Committee. Boehlert supports
reviving the OTA, but David Goldston, the Science Committee's chief
of staff, says the congressman "doesn't consider it a top priority."

"The more sources that Congress can have, the better. And OTA's work
was of a high quality," Goldston says. But the proposal "is a big
symbolic issue, and the OTA's role has been exaggerated to a great

Further, the notion is false that lawmakers are left to rely on advice
from biased sources -- or worse, their own wits, he says. "The idea
that Congress put a ban on scientific advice when it abolished the
OTA is just bizarre." Lawmakers, he says, can and do get help from
universities, think tanks, outside scientists and the National
Academy complex, which includes the National Academy of Science and
the National Academy of Engineering.

Critics of that approach say the academies are expensive, and the
research they provide is often full of jargon and is difficult for
non-scientists to understand. And in any case, they say, nothing
measures up to an in-house body dedicated solely to providing
analysis to Congress.

Holt now has 86 co-sponsors for his bill. The next step is to sign up
more members, with hopes of bringing the legislation back in the next
session, but hopes aren't high.

"It's an uphill battle," says Holt spokesman Capsis. "It's not a sexy
issue. It's a bunch of nerds in a room with a bunch of computers."

Copyright (C) 1994-2002 Wired Digital Inc. All rights reserved.

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