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Ogmius Newsletter

Guest Editorial

Comments on Improving Science and Technology Advice for Congress

In a September 14, 2001, Policy Forum in Science magazine titled “Improving Science and Technology Advice for Congress” Morgan et al. present a solid case for the reestablishment of an Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) within Congress to offer advice on scientific and technological issues. Since Congress terminated OTA in 1995 it has had no internal resource for such advice. But providing advice to Congress is complicated. Morgan et al. know the complications, but all readers of their Policy Forum may not.

Morgan et al.’s most comprehensive statement of what Congress needs is “balanced analysis and synthesis that sorts, integrates, and analyzes information to frame the issues and extract knowledge and insight.” They also characterize Congress’ need as “systematic analysis by experts”, “objective guidance”, “analytical capability”, “balanced technical advice”, “to have experts frame and explain the choices it faces”, and “balanced, nonpartisan advice”. Synthesis is mentioned but not emphasized.

Initially a recreated OTA must fix real problems. Despite offering valuable advice, OTA was terminated by an ideological Congress that considered technical advice irrelevant. To justify killing OTA the terminators cited a need to cut costs, along with some real weaknesses of OTA such as late reports. Thoughtful reports take time so solving this problem is not trivial. The need to cut costs was, however, a red herring: As Morgan et al. indicate OTA’s budget was and would be small compared to the full cost of funding Congress. As they also correctly state, OTA provided useful “quiet, informal” advice to Congress, which to some degree compensated for late final reports.

More importantly, an OTA must distinguish technical advice from policy advice. Even for issues centered on science and technology, the most important questions may be neither scientific nor technical. My point of departure is epitomized by Renn et al’s statement that “Value free evaluation is an oxymoron.” There may be a presumption that purely technical issues are value-free. But very few purely technical issues come before Congress.

Consider the authors’ first example of an issue needing systematic analysis by experts: “what is the best way to manage the transition of telephone service from highly regulated conventional switched-line systems to the essentially unregulated packet-switched Internet?” This example illustrates the difficulties of providing technical advice to legislators. First, the notion of “best” encompasses many considerations beyond science and technology. Most efficient? Least costly? Fairest (and who defines “fair”)? Is regulation evil? or necessary? Best protect sunk capital costs (or ignore them)? Best for urban or rural areas? Narrow or widen the digital divide? Increase or decrease income inequality? If answers to these value-laden questions are predetermined by policy decisions, the science and technology questions may become much narrower -- perhaps trivial and best left to technicians. Conversely, if these policy questions are not answered, S&T advice may be irrelevant to the policy decisions legislators face. Another way of looking at this is to ask, “Who are the experts on ‘best’?”

This brings us back to “synthesis” and to a practical difficulty an OTA will always face. Science and technology issues exist in a policy context rich with values. Synthesis that brings these values into consideration will lead far beyond technical advice. Morgan et al. recognize that “Congress does not need to be told what to do by experts”, but some members of Congress may see a dispassionate analysis of their passionately held views as just that. For example, some politicians who do not want to acknowledge global greenhouse warming oppose even research on mitigation or adaptation to global change because such research seems to endorse warming.

Of course there are value-laden issues with science and technology content for which useful technical advice can and should be given to Congress. As stated above, I want to point out the complications.

To further illustrate how values permeate policy advice, consider the role of scientific and technological experts advocating a greater role for science and technology in policy. Morgan et al. perhaps unwittingly approach the oxymoronic trap of ”value-free evaluation” when they recommend that “the science and technology communities [should] become actively engaged in supporting” legislation to reestablish OTA. The message is: “we believe Congress needs technical advice, and therefore we, the purveyors of technical advice, are going to lobby Congress to accept our advice.” To the extent that technical advice is presumed to be value-free, this amounts to saying “we will press on Congress our [value-based] view that they need to listen to our [value-free] views.” This is not a theoretical consideration. The National Academy of Sciences’ advice to policy makers virtually always includes a recommendation for more research. Is it mere coincidence that this advice supports the NAS mission to advance science and technology? Does this coincidence taint the advice? If the Academy’s “more-research” advice can be questioned, what about its other recommendations?

In conclusion, the science and technology community should take care that the “help” being offered Congress does not relate more to the interests of the offerors than to what Congress needs to make better decisions. Scientists lobbying for a greater role for science and technology look pretty much like other lobbyists. Efforts to reestablish an OTA must begin with a searching examination of motives, of what is really needed, and, in light of what is needed, what realistically can be provided.

      Radford Byerly
      Center for Science and Technology
      Policy Research
      University of Colorado


Morgan, M.G., A. Houghton, and J.H. Gibbons, 2001: Improving science and technology advice for Congress. Science 293: 1999-2000.

Renn, O., T. Webler, and P. Wiedemann, 1995: A Need for Discourse on Citizen Participation: Objectives and Structure of the Book, in Renn, O., T. Webler, and P. Wiedemann, eds, Fairness and Competence in Citizen Participation; Evaluating Models for Environmental Discourse (Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, Boston), p 4.