Honoring the Office of Technology Assessment

The Office of Technology Assessment was deprived of its funding by the 104th Congress.  The Agency, which we as staffers labeled “Congress’ Own Think Tank,” had become official in 1972, and was tasked with taking a long-term look at the implications of technology on all aspects of society.  By most accounts, we did a phenomenal job.  Although Congress has yet to rally enough support to reauthorize the Office of Technology Assessment, the former Agency’s loyal supporters and advocates have written frequently about the role the OTA could be playing in public discourse.  They have also recently launched an on-line archive of all of OTA’s work, which also depicts and details its 20+ year history.

From a posting on an FAS listserv by Nate Hafer, of the Federation of American Scientists:

Today the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) launched the Office of Technology Assessment Archive, http://www.fas.org/ota . The site allows the public to access over 720 reports and documents produced by OTA during its 23 year history, including many that have not been available to the public previously. OTA served as an independent branch of the U.S. Congress that provided nonpartisan science and technology advice from 1972 until it was defunded and forced to close in 1995.

The site also features a new video interview with Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ), who has been spearheading the effort on Capitol Hill to revive OTA. According to Rep. Holt, “if OTA were here, doing this kind of work, we would have better legislation for school safety, chemical exposure, grain dust explosions, the R&D tax credit, on and on.” He goes on to describe some current policy issues that OTA could address and explains why Congress should bring back OTA.

“The OTA was an invaluable resource that informed Congress about an incredibly broad range of science and technology issues,” said Henry Kelly, President of the Federation of American Scientists and a former OTA staff member. “Numerous reports, on subjects such as transportation, energy, health care, and information technology remain relevant, more than 10 years after OTA issued its final report.”

“OTA produced the first report raising the possibility of genetic discrimination in the workplace almost 17 years before the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act was passed,” according to Michael Stebbins, Director of Biology Policy at FAS. “That kind of foresight into major policy issues is sorely missed in Washington today.”

The Archive will track efforts to bring back OTA and will also highlight items not previously available to the public in a “Document of the Day” feature. The website also includes a new search engine that allows users to quickly and easily find specific content in OTA reports.

Visit the Office of Technology Assessment Archive at http://www.fas.org/ota

As a former OTA employee, I would like to add a tribute of my own.  From my perspective, the OTA not only provided Congress and the public with outstanding policy foresight on technology-related issues, in so doing, it also greatly advanced interdisciplinary research.  As Einstein once commented, problems cannot be solved within the context in which they were originally created.  The methods and practices at OTA implicitly took this insight into account.  Because many of its reports were problem-centered, OTA analysts reached out across a variety of venues to garner information and engage in cross-disciplinary dialogues.  As a result, those analysts frequently generated a number of creative, and often quite successful, policy solutions.

I owe my interest and devotion to interdisciplinary scholarship in part to the twenty years that I was fortunate enough to have worked at the Congressional Office of Technology.  Today, I try to maintain that legacy by bringing what I learned at OTA to Georgetown University’s interdisciplinary program — the Communication, Culture and Technology Program — where I presently serve as Director.  I like to believe that, in teaching my students to think holistically, and to conceptualize their research in an interdisciplinary framework, I am planting the seed corn for the time when Congress regains its wits and revives the OTA.

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