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FYI Number 70: July 5, 2007

Technology Assessment - Yes; Office of Technology Assessment - Not Yet

The House and Senate appropriations committees have included FY 2008 funding for a technology assessment capability for Congress. These studies would be performed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), with an initial budget far lower than that of the Office of Technology Assessment which closed in 1995.

The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was a nonpartisan analytical congressional support office that was established in 1972, producing 750 assessments, papers, and other materials on a wide variety of issues. In its final year, OTA had a staff of about 200 employees and a budget of approximately $22 million.

In 1995, following a change in congressional leadership, committee chairmen announced plans to close OTA by not including money for it in the FY 1996 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill. This move was included in a broader package of budget-cutting proposals that would have eliminated the Department of Commerce, and reduced funding for the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the basic research programs of the Department of Energy. One report commented that OTA appeared to be "the sacrificial lamb of the legislative branch." After considerable debate, OTA closed that September.

Several attempts have been made to reestablish a technology assessment capability for Congress. In 2001, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) sponsored an unsuccessful bill to reauthorize OTA with an annual appropriation of $20 million between FY 2002 and FY 2007 (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2001/076.html.) In 2002, the GAO performed some pilot studies. In 2004, Holt was unable to secure $30 million in the FY 2005 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill for a technology assessment capability in the GAO (see www.aip.org/fyi/2004/116.html.) A 2006 hearing by the House Science Committee examining how Congress receives its S&T analysis included considerable discussion about OTA (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/106.html.)

Congress is now poised to reestablish a technology assessment function at the GAO in FY 2008. House and Senate appropriators have included language in their Legislative Branch appropriations' subcommittee reports on a technology assessment capability, with a far lower budget than the $22 million OTA received in 1994. The report language follows:

HOUSE REPORT 110-198:

"Technology Assessment.--The Committee believes as technology continues to change and expand rapidly it is essential that the consequences of technological applications be anticipated, understood, and considered in determination of public policy on existing and emerging national problems. The Committee believes it is necessary for the Congress to equip itself with effective means for securing competent, timely and unbiased information concerning the effects of scientific and technical developments and use the information in the legislative assessment of matters pending before the Congress. The Committee has provided $2,500,000 for the Government Accountability Office to perform technology assessment studies in the coming fiscal year."

SENATE REPORT 110-89:

"Technology Assessment.--The Committee recommends $750,000 and four full-time equivalent employees to establish a permanent technology assessment function in the Government Accountability Office. The Committee has decided not to establish a separate entity to provide independent technology assessment for the legislative branch owing to budget constraints. In addition, GAO's focus on producing quality reports that are professional, objective, fact-based, fair, balanced, and nonpartisan is consistent with the needs of an independent legislative branch technology assessment function. The Committee notes that GAO's Center for Technology and Engineering, which led the 2002 pilot program in technology assessment, is staffed by engineers and scientists with experience in systems engineering, software engineering, real-time systems, computer security, cost estimation, and biological technologies.

"The Committee directs GAO to define an operational concept for this line of work, adapted from current tested processes and protocols. At a minimum, this capability would require: (1) developing and maintaining relationships with relevant congressional committees to facilitate the selection of technology assessment topics; (2) keeping congressional committees abreast of the results of technology assessments, meeting with Members and staff, and preparing testimony statements for relevant hearings; (3) developing and maintaining relationships with key external experts and organizations to remain informed about emerging technologies and potential related public policy issues; (4) developing, documenting, and refining processes for conducting technology assessments; (5) consulting with independent experts and conducting peer review of reports; (6) developing standards and procedures for issuing technology assessment reports as distinct from their audit products; and (7) developing metrics to measure the value of the technology assessment capability. The Committee directs GAO to report within 60 days of enactment of this act on its operational concept for the technology assessment function."

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3095

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