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Ogmius Newsletter

Granger Morgan Responds:

Nobody brings more practical experience to the issue of providing science and technology advice to the Congress than Rad Byerly. During the many years that he ran the staff of the House Science Committee, under the able leadership of Congressman George Brown, he saw it all! Thus, both his words of support and his words of caution deserve serious consideration.

On June 14 we ran a workshop in Washington on creating institutional structures to provide better science and technology advice to the U.S. Congress. Our objective was not to advance any specific solution, but rather to start a national conversation about this basic need. In that, we seem to have succeeded. Since June there has been active, ongoing, discussion and debate. Perhaps more importantly, there have also been several legislative initiatives. The final version of the legislative branch appropriations bill contains half a million dollars for a pilot project to support a study through the General Accounting Office (GAO) of how technology might be used to enhance the mission of U.S. border control. HR 2148, a bill to again fund the OTA, has collected several dozen co-sponsors from both parties. And, a bill recently introduced by Senators Kerry, Stevens, Hollings, Inouye and Akaka calls for the creation of a National Science and Technology Assessment Service in the Legislative Branch.

The concerns that Byerly raises deserve careful attention. He argues that there is no such thing as "value-free analysis." He's right. There is also no such thing as living a life without sin...but peoples of the world have long seen this as an admirable objective toward which to strive. Policy analysts should do the same with respect to values. Values can be identified explicitly and treated parametrically. In the case of analysis done for the Congress, there are at least two strategies that can help. First, the use of broadly representative expert and stakeholder advisory panels can help assure that all relevant views are captured and implicit value assumptions ferreted out and identified. While analysis generally can't identify what's "best", it can identify a range of social objectives that are worth thinking about, and then spell out the extent to which different policy choices advance those objectives. A strategy of reporting findings as a list of policy options in the form "if Congress wants to achieve so-and-so then it should do such-and-such" can help assure that the important value choices get made by elected representatives, not analytical staff.

If scientists and engineers promote the need for better analysis by the Congress, does that mean they are advancing their own narrow interests? I don't think so, but I also don't think it likely that scientists and engineers alone will succeed in persuading the Congress that it needs better technical analysis and synthesis. Congress is a representative body. It responds to the inputs of constituents. If we are going to succeed in the effort to create one or a number of new institutions to provide balanced analytical advice to the Congress, the message of need is going to have to come widely from many constituents - from industry, from professional societies, from NGOs, from individual citizens. In the long run, better informed decision making serves the interests of us all.