Holt decries loss of science advice

Congressman wants to regain independent science and technology guidance for lawmakers

Congress no longer has access to politically neutral advice on science and technology, according to some lawmakers who say the loss is regrettable. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a physicist, said the closure of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which advised lawmakers on science and technology issues, was a serious loss.

“Congress decided in 1995 that we did not need an in-house body dedicated to technological assessment,” Holt said at a July 25 hearing of the House Science Committee. Lawmakers at the time argued that experts from lawmakers’ districts, politically interested think tanks and the National Academy of Sciences could provide technical assessments.

Congress created OTA in 1972. For many years, the office produced reports on topics that are still relevant. Holt said its absence is sharply felt because most lawmakers are not technologists and are often unable to ask questions that go beyond their personal understanding of technologies.

Witnesses at the hearing presented several approaches that would enlighten policy-makers on scientific subjects. They discussed the possibility of creating a new OTA-like program and suggestions for an in-house science and technology unit that would produce timely assessments. That unit could operate under the auspices of the Congressional Research Service or the Government Accountability Office, or it could stand alone as a congressional support agency, witnesses said.

GAO is running a small test project to generate advisory reports on specific issues. It has completed assessments on four topics: biometrics, cybersecurity, wildfires and cargo security.

Another resource available to Congress is the Congressional Science Fellows program administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In that program, about 35 doctorate-level scientists and engineers work for a year as professional staff members in congressional offices. But the relatively small number of fellows cannot churn out reports for the entire legislative branch, according to testimony.

“Information is not in short supply on Capitol Hill, but information is not knowledge,” said Albert Teich, director of science and policy programs at AAAS.

Peter Blair, executive director of the National Research Council’s Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, proposed expanding the role of the National Academies to fill some of the gaps in guidance available to Congress.

Lawmakers who listened to the witnesses do not yet have a firm agenda for addressing that void. Zachary Kurz, a spokesman for House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), said the committee has no plans for a second hearing.

Pat Eddington, a spokesman for Holt, said the congressman is not backing a specific approach at this point. “Holt is looking at a number of different options about where we go from here,” he said.

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