A Technology Assessment Revival?

August 17th, 2007

Posted by: admin

A recent Issue of the American Institute of Physics‘ Science Policy News revisited a topic addressed in one of the earliest Prometheus posts – the Office of Technology Assessment, or OTA. You can review a brief history and archived reports online. Ever since its demise in the mid 90s there has been a regular attempt to revive the body, which provide technology assessment and related policy analysis to Congress. Legislation has been introduced on more than one occasion to revive the body, or some similar capacity, but the bills have not gotten very far in Congress.

The AIP piece notes that in the House and Senate Appropriations Committee Reports that accompanied their respective Legislative Branch Appropriations bills, there is language to provide the Government Accountability Office with technology assessment capacity. As usual, the amounts differ between the two chambers, but it is a relatively small amount ($2.5 million in the House report, $750,000 plus four full-time employees in the Senate report). Read the relevant sections of the Senate report (pages 42-43) for a better idea of what this technology assessment function might resemble.

Given limited budget resources, and lingering baggage from the demise of the OTA, placing technology assessment in the GAO has its advantages. The agency has a strong reputation for non-partisanship and independence. It has a small group of expertise within its Center for Technology and Engineering. It has tested a pilot technology assessment program since 2002, with at least 3 reports produced so far:

Technology Assessment: Protecting Structures and Improving Communications during Wildland Fires. GAO-05-380. Washington, D.C.: April 2005
Technology Assessment: Cybersecurity for Critical Infrastructure Protection. GAO-04-321. Washington, D.C.: May 28, 2004.
Technology Assessment: Using Biometrics for Border Security. GAO-03-
174. Washington, D.C.: November 15, 2002.

Please don’t pop the champagne corks just yet. The language is connected to appropriations bills that have not been approved – yet. Previous efforts to provide similar resources to GAO have met with limited success. This kind of approach has been tried since at least the FY 2002 budget, usually getting cut from the final appropriations bill. The House Science Committee hearing from last July showed few serious Congressional signs of interest in developing a new body for technology assessment, or a technology assessment function for an existing body. And this committee is the closest thing to a consistent source of support the science and technology policy community has on the Hill.

So again, a policy outcome desired by many in the science and technology policy fields could fail. Unlike the recently passed competitiveness legislation (which took two sessions and a concerted behind the scenes effort with industry), it would be especially self-serving to generate a National Academies Report arguing for increased technology assessment capacity. If this is truly needed, how should the community make its case (its tactics), and what is the case to make (its argument)?

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