Congressional S&T Capacity

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If you have an evidence-based idea you’d like to convey to lawmakers, or a question they should ask witnesses during this hearing, kindly send them to [email protected]. We will anonymize your submission and make sure the House Science Committee sees it.

Help identify the resources Congress needs to get smart on science and technology

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) just poured cold water on the idea that Congress should revitalize the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will address this issue in its hearing next week.

We’re counting on you to use this web portal to 1) rank recommendations that address enhancing Congressional science and technology (S&T) policy capacity by voting in a straw poll, and 2) contribute your objective views, comments, and questions, all of which will be anonymized, collated, and conveyed to the House Science Committee for use in its hearing.

Because scientific developments have accelerated in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and biotechnology, many have advocated for reinstating an updated version of the OTA. However, the NAPA report instead recommended enhancing existing Congressional S&T resources (the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) group) and creating two new Congressional teams: 1) An office that would “focus on efforts to build the absorptive capacity of Congress” and executing horizon scanning work and 2) a council that would coordinate Congress’ S&T policy resources for efficiency.

This website provides you with the opportunity to tell Congress what issues should be discussed during this critical hearing. You can submit questions that lawmakers should ask witnesses, or personal stories about your experience working at the OTA, and your general thoughts on how S&T capacity should be improved on the Hill.

Straw poll

Note: FAS hosts a publicly accessible, searchable OTA archive.

Hearing details

Main topic: Congressional capacity for leveraging science and technology expertise in the policymaking process

What: House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing: “Experts needed: Options for improved S&T advice for Congress”

Who: The scheduled witnesses are:

  • Dr. Tim Persons, Chief Scientist and Managing Director; Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics; US Government Accountability Office
  • Ms. Laura Manley, Director, Technology and Public Purpose Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
  • Dr. Peter Blair, Executive Director, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
  • The Honorable Michael McCord, Director, Civil-Military Programs, Stennis Center for Public Service

When: Thursday, December 5th, 2019 at 10:00am ET

Where: 2318 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC | Webcast

Nonpartisan analysis and research

Sample questions for lawmakers to ask witnesses. Please share yours for lawmakers.

Because scientific developments have accelerated in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and biotechnology, many have advocated for reinstating an updated version of the OTA. However, the recent Congressionally-mandated NAPA report recommended enhancing existing Congressional S&T resources (the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) group) and creating two new Congressional teams: 1) An office that would “focus on efforts to build the absorptive capacity of Congress” and executing horizon scanning work and 2) a council that would coordinate Congress’ S&T policy resources for efficiency.

Would all four witnesses speak to whether you believe the NAPA report’s conclusion is indeed preferable to another option, such as re-funding an OTA tailored to address currently unmet Congressional S&T needs?

One of the most consequential challenges of our time is to address risks associated with social media, such as how the technology enables the rapid spread of disinformation, or is used to meddle in elections.

Would all four witnesses please talk about how the OTA and the GAO STAA team would both go about educating lawmakers on this issue, and whether there would be different outcomes based on the different offices’ governing Congressional mandates and outreach approaches?

Along with the reduction in S&T policy support capacity, there was a decline in many other different types of internal Congressional policy support capacity after Congress decided against renewing OTA’s funding in the mid-90s. Committee staff levels continue to decline. Pay is stagnate, resulting in a brain drain out of the Legislative Branch. Congress’ operational support arms like GAO and CRS have suffered decades of staff cuts.

The NAPA report states that because of this, “a significant number of senior Congressional staffs do not believe Congress has the resources or knowledge available to do its job.”

Would all four witnesses please explain why you agree or disagree with the assessment of these senior Congressional staffs, and whether you believe it is beneficial for a great deal of Congressional policymaking to rely on non-governmental S&T support?

Members of Congress and staff are inundated with information from both external and internal sources, but S&T policy-making is an area of improvement. Controlling for inflation, lobbying expenditures experienced a six-fold increase between 1983 and 2013. The technology industry is now a significant driver of this growth: In 2016, the five largest technology companies in the country together outspent all but two lobbying groups. The presence of civil society actors has also swelled. There are presently over 1,800 think tanks in the US, a number that has more than doubled since 1980, with more than half estimated to be producing and distributing S&T-related content.

Congress is also awash with information produced ‘internally.’ In 2017, Members and staff accessed CRS reports and other research products more than 658,300 times; 8,600 Congressional participants attended CRS seminars and training programs; and CRS produced 11,100 reports and other products requested by Congress.

Would all four witnesses speak to whether the proposed options in the NAPA report would do more than just increase the supply of information, and actually help Congress make use of S&T analysis?

The history of OTA provides a deep well of case studies as Congress considers a modernized S&T advisory option for the 21st century. OTA, for instance, was criticized about the usefulness of its products. By the early 1990s, a typical OTA assessment took 18 months to complete; moreover, it cost $500,000. OTA also worked primarily for a narrow constituency within Congress. About one-quarter of OTA’s studies were performed for Committees chaired by members of its Technology Assessment Board.

At the same time, OTA was deeply embedded within Congress, informally loaning out personnel to Committees and regularly engaging with lawmakers and Committee staff. Unlike GAO and CRS, which operate at arms-length from most Members of Congress and their staff, OTA worked in the trenches. Members saw this as a strength.

Given the various strengths and weaknesses of past operations of OTA, which are most relevant and important as Congress considers a modernized OTA, or even a new option altogether?

To make informed decisions, it is critical that Congress stays up to date on S&T issues. To keep Congress informed, it’s important to anticipate trends with US S&T competitiveness, progress toward artificial intelligence, STEM workforce, or advances in engineering biology.

In the past, GAO, CRS, and OTA have concentrated on the delivery of content in the form of discrete reports. Going forward, how will GAO or CRS update their reports and analysis on a regular basis in order to keep up with the changing S&T landscape?

Follow-up: GAO STAA has begun to produce S&T Spotlight one-pagers. Could all four witnesses speak to what other innovations in content development are necessary to bolster Congress’ S&T capability?

Follow-up: In your view, should the research and analysis produced by Congressional advisory bodies be limited to members of Congress and their staff, or made publicly available?

Dr. Persons, while GAO has performed some technology assessments, the bulk of its work is in its capacity as an auditing institution. For example, just 15 reports are highlighted as technology assessments on the GAO website, out of thousands of reports GAO has prepared for Congress.

This Committee recognizes that STAA was only stood up in January and is in some ways still finding its legs. Regardless, please speak to how GAO’s culture impacts STAA – what features are helpful to incorporate, and in what ways should STAA be allowed to find its own way, particularly on S&T assessments? Would the other witnesses please speak to this as well?

Follow-up: Would breaking off STAA as a standalone resource and implementing it around the dormant OTA skeleton allow it to be more effective than housing it within GAO? Why or why not?

Your evidence-based question could be here!

Your evidence-based question could be here!

More sample questions will be added as objective contributions are received from the science community. Email your submissions to us at [email protected]! Last updated Tuesday 12/3/19.

Quick reads

S&T policy assessment: A Congressionally directed review – National Academy of Public Administration Overview

The Congressional Futures Office: A modern model for S&T expertise in Congress – Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Executive Summary

Congress needs the Office of Technology Assessment to keep up with S&T – Bipartisan Policy Center Executive Summary

Building a 21st century Congress: Improving Congress’s S&T expertise – Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Executive Summary

Deep dives

A review of current S&T resources available to Members of Congress – National Academy of Public Administration Report

A reaction to the National Academy of Public Administration report on Congressional S&T resources – Lincoln Policy Report

The Congressional Futures Office: A modern model for S&T expertise in Congress – Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Brief

Congress needs the Office of Technology Assessment to keep up with S&T – Bipartisan Policy Center Report

Building a 21st century Congress: Improving Congress’s S&T expertise – Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Report

A collaboratively derived international research agenda on legislative science advice – Akerlof, K. et al. Research Article

Resources

Letters and press clips

Letter to Congressional leadership, “RE: Enhancing congressional capacity on technology policy

American competitiveness requires a smarter Congress – Roll Call op-ed

How Congress can step up on innovative technology issues – The Hill piece

Study complicates campaign to revive Congressional Technology Office – FYI: Science policy news from AIP piece

Building capacity in S&T – Government Accountability Office WatchBlog piece

House members call for Office of Technology Assessment revival – Roll Call piece

Former staffers: Revive Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment right or don’t bother – Nextgov piece

Congress should revive the Office of Technology Assessment – Center for American Progress brief

Podcasts

Rep. Mark Takano on tech in Congress – Techdirt Podcast episode 227

Bring in the nerds: Reviving the Office of Technology Assessment – Tech Policy Podcast episode 222

Bipartisan bills

Office of Technology Assessment Improvement and Enhancement Act, H.R.4426/S.2509

Engage and take action!

Contribute your nonpartisan, objective statements and questions. We will collate your submissions and post them here – anonymously – as part of this resource for policymakers. Submit to [email protected]!