Congress Bolstering Its Access to S&T Expertise

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Publication date: 
9 May 2019
Number: 
45

Parallel efforts to bolster Congress’ science and technology assessment capabilities are unfolding this year, with the Government Accountability Office building out its S&T assessment team and House Democrats proposing to revive the Office of Technology Assessment.

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(Image credit – Architect of the Capitol)

Today, the House Appropriations Committee approved a funding bill for the legislative branch of the federal government that includes $6 million to reestablish the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a research group that provided science and technology advice to Congress and was defunded in 1995.

Congress has faced increasing pressure, from inside and out, to improve its ability to act on matters in which S&T play a critical role. Last year, it passed spending legislation that directed the Government Accountability Office to increase its capacity in S&T analysis, and that effort is currently underway. The legislation also asked the Congressional Research Service to study other ways Congress could augment its advice channels, including by reestablishing OTA.

While the CRS study has not yet been released, the new legislation reflects the conviction of some House Democrats that the further step of restoring OTA is warranted. Whether the proposal can win support in the Republican-controlled Senate remains to be seen.

GAO expanding S&T assessment team

Following the dissolution of OTA, GAO became a newly important source of S&T advice to Congress. In 2000, it established a Center for Science, Technology, and Engineering, and two years later Congress began asking the office to undertake technology assessments in addition to its usual audits of federal S&T programs and cost estimates.

Currently, in addition to preparing standalone reports, GAO often undertakes routine reviews, such as its annual assessment of NASA’s major projects and, more recently, of the National Science Foundation’s large research facility construction projects. GAO states that it provided nearly 200 research products to 34 congressional committees covering a “wide range” of S&T and information technology issues in fiscal year 2018.

Earlier this year, GAO created a new Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team that brought together its S&T-related activities into one unit, and last month released its plan for further building it up. This will include creating a new "Innovation Lab" that will “explore, pilot, and deploy new advanced analytic capabilities and emerging technologies,” with a particular focus on those relevant to information technology and financial auditing. GAO states it also plans to increase the STAA staff from 49 to 70 by the end of fiscal year 2019, and have potentially up to 140 employees in subsequent years, depending on the demand for assistance from Congress.

The head of GAO, Gene Dodaro, has said expanding the STAA team is a high priority for him in the current budget cycle. Acknowledging the options before Congress at a recent budget hearing, he remarked, “I know there's been a debate in the past about whether to reinstate OTA or provide more resources to GAO. I'm here to assure you that we're prepared, if you decide to go that way, to handle those additional responsibilities.”

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(Image credit – GAO)

OTA advocates seek ‘anticipatory’ advice

Congress established OTA in 1974 to serve as a source of nonpartisan science and technology expertise. The office had about 150 staff members and an annual budget of $22 million when it was defunded in 1995 as part of the new Republican majority’s spending cuts across the federal government.

At its height, OTA released around 50 reports per year on a variety of topics, such as the effectiveness of energy research programs, the feasibility of President Reagan’s missile defense initiative, and policy options for addressing climate change. Studies were initiated by congressional committees, undertaken by OTA staff, and reviewed by panels of outside experts.

The latest efforts in the House to revive OTA build on two decades of attempts. In the 2000s, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), a physicist who is now CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was a leading advocate for restoring the office. Since then, Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), another physicist, has picked up the mantle, and has recently been working in partnership with Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) to build support.

In an op-ed on May 1, Takano and freshman Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL), who has a master’s degree in biochemical engineering, laid out a new case for OTA in light of the work of CRS and GAO, writing,

Despite the potential of GAO’s new STAA team and the fine tradition of CRS, neither of these two organizations — independently or combined — fill the void left by the shuttering of the OTA. In the ecosystem of congressional support agencies CRS summarizes; GAO evaluates; and the OTA anticipates.

As we consider the use of technologies such as AI, facial recognition, quantum computing, and emerging energy storage and generation in both the private and public sectors, it is increasingly important that Congress have unbiased assessments of what is on the horizon. While CRS and GAO are well equipped to look at what is known and what has already happened, and to identify questions and gaps, the OTA’s role is to chart the way forward by generating new knowledge that answers those questions and fills those gaps.

In its report on its spending legislation, the House Appropriations Committee echoes the sentiment that OTA would play a unique role, stating, “Since the de-funding of OTA in 1995 ... it has become increasingly clear that Congress does not have adequate resources available for the in-depth, high level analysis of fast-breaking technology developments and their public policy implications that was formerly provided by OTA. While the GAO has increased its technology assessment activities attempting to fill that gap, the structure and culture of GAO somewhat constrain its ability to replicate OTA."

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