Lawmakers want more access to science info

In a new twist on the issue of open government, lawmakers said Congress lacks access to information.

The House Science Committee held a hearing today on scientific advice for Congress.

“Although we would like to believe that the scientific and technical advice and assessment provided from outside remains politically neutral, this is not necessarily the case,” said Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who requested the discussion.

Much of the testimony presented by witnesses from the scientific and engineering community centered on a now-defunct congressional program that provided the analysis Holt says is missing.

From 1972 to 1995, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a congressional support office, prepared reports on science and technology issues that lawmakers requested. Many reports are still relevant, including “Potential Environmental Impacts of Bioenergy Crop Production” and “Innovation and Commercialization of Emerging Technologies.”

“Congress decided in 1995 that we did not need an in-house body dedicated to technological assessment," Holt said. "The technical assessment could come, we told ourselves -- before my time here -- through committee hearings, CRS reports, experts in our district, think tanks and the National Academy of Sciences.”

He said lawmakers generally have a low comfort level with technology and are unable to probe beyond their personal understanding or staff briefings.

"In the 10 years since we said these various groups would provide the technical advice we need, we have not gotten what we need in order to do the people’s work,” Holt said. “We should acknowledge that."

Various committees have held hearings on technical subjects, but lawmakers were not educated enough on the topics to make informed decisions, Holt added. He cited the House Administration Committee's recent hearing on voting system standards.

Witnesses urged the government to form a new OTA-like program to provide credible, impartial, independent information in a timely fashion.

“Information is not in short supply on Capitol Hill, but information is not knowledge,” said Albert Teich, director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Credible sources are needed to provide timely analysis and synthesis of scientific and technical information as a foundation for congressional decisions. The even greater role of science and technology in today’s society demands that we seek innovative methods suited to 21st-century needs to provide Congress with objective, timely, policy-relevant analyses – that is, knowledge that members can use.”

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