WASHINGTON, D.C.--Science policy wonks gathered here 14 June to hash out ideas for reviving Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a science advice agency that conservative lawmakers killed in 1995. By the end of the day-long workshop, however, there was no consensus on what might convince Congress to change its mind.
Created in 1972, OTA was known for organizing diverse panels that churned out well-regarded reports on hot policy topics such as genetic engineering. It's also been the inspiration for similar science advisory agencies established in other countries. But some lawmakers felt that OTA had become a bastion of Democratic bias that took too long to complete expensive studies. When Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, one of their first moves was to eliminate the $22 million office. Ever since, science community leaders have complained that lawmakers lack a trustworthy, neutral source of expertise on emerging issues such as stem cell research and nanotechnology, although the National Academy of Sciences has stepped up its production of reports for Congress.
To fill the gap, workshop organizer M. Granger Morgan of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, asked 10 academics and science advice veterans to explore five potential models. The ideas included a small organization that would contract out studies and a neo-OTA housed at an existing nonprofit or university. However, none of the plans escaped criticism from workshop participants, who included a number of former OTA staffers.
A bill to resurrect OTA in its original form, H.R. 2148, recently introduced by Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), is dead on arrival, some pronounced. "Congress at this point does not seem ready to invest in a new staff-heavy organization," said Bill Bonvillian, a senior aide to Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT). Any such proposal also faces a steep learning curve: Holt confessed that some of his colleagues "didn't even know that OTA had been abolished."
Despite the darts, Morgan said that the workshop achieved its intended goal of "getting a national conversation started." For skeptics, however, the meeting demonstrated that convincing Congress it needs a new OTA will be about as easy as cloning a dinosaur.