Secrecy News

A New Push for the Office of Technology Assessment

Ever since the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was eliminated in 1995 by the resurgent Republican majority, some members of Congress, science policy advocates, and others having been searching for a way to replace the depth of expertise and and the often trenchant policy analysis that it once provided to Congress and the public.  Now the possibility of reconstituting OTA itself is gaining new momentum.

For the second year in a row, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) has requested funding that $35 million be allocated to restore OTA.  For FY 2011, Rep. Holt requested $2.5 million for an initial restart, with the expectation that the budget would later grow to around $35 million. Last week, dozens of scientific, environmental, labor and other organizations endorsed funding for OTA in a letter to Congress.  “Revitalizing the OTA would enable members of Congress to more fully understand the advantages and implications of the science and technologies in which they are asked to invest,” said the May 7 letter (pdf), which was coordinated by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The possibility of new funding for OTA and related discussion of technology assessments for Congress including were noted by the Congressional Research Service in “Legislative Branch: FY2011 Appropriations” (pdf), April 28, 2010 (at pp. 18-19).

A comprehensive archive of OTA publications from 1972-1995 is available on the Federation of American Scientists web site.

A 2004 report from the Federation of American Scientists entitled “Flying Blind: The Rise, Fall, and Possible Resurrection of Science Policy Advice in the United States” by Henry Kelly, Ivan Oelrich, myself and Benn H. Tannenbaum is here (pdf).

In the absence of an OTA, Congress has assigned technology assessment problems of varying scope and complexity to the National Academies of Science, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Research Service.

A 2008 CRS report — that may conceivably have some relevance to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig off the Gulf Coast last month — examined the value and hazards of natural gas in the form of solid gas hydrates.  “Offshore drilling operations that disturb gas hydrate-bearing sediments could fracture or disrupt the bottom sediments and compromise the wellbore, pipelines, rig supports, and other equipment involved in oil and gas production from the seafloor,” the report said.  See “Gas Hydrates: Resource and Hazard” (pdf), November 26, 2008.