Sisyphean Quest to Reform OTA Continues

March 31st, 2009

Posted by: admin

It what appears to have nothing to do with the Harold Varmus appearance I mentioned earlier this week, and seems coincidental with this essay by Gerald Epstein, there appears to be another push to re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).  The OTA was an office within Congress that provided advise on science and technology issues to its members.  It was defunded (but not officially disbanded) in the mid-1990s.  There are plenty of Prometheus posts connected to the OTA, but a good refresher would include this post with comments from OTA staffers, and the last big push to reinstitute some kind of technology assessment capacity for Congress.  More on the last push (late 2007) can be found at Denialism.

The recent push appears to start from the remaining legislative champion of the OTA, Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey.  According to Science Cheerleader (H/T The Intersection), Rep. Holt will make a request for OTA funds this week, and argue his case before appropriators in May.  Since the OTA was just defunded, and not dissolved, technically the request for funds is sufficient to restart the agency.  Assuming Rep. Holt is successful, we shall see.  I wish this movement weren’t so focused on reconstituting the past, as I’m not sure that’s the easiest (or best) means of re-establishing science and technology advisory capacity in the Congress.  At a minimum, it’s not the only way, yet the advocates seem to act as though it is.  If there’s a compelling reason for this, I’d love to hear it.

6 Responses to “Sisyphean Quest to Reform OTA Continues”

  1. Maurice Garoutte Says:

    There is one compelling reason for reconstituting the past. In the good old days science had not been politicized. But it’s too late now, that toothpaste is out of the tube.

    I also miss the days when baseball records were not tainted by drug use.

    And yes there are still intellectually honest scientists and athletes who are clean and sober, but the public has lost faith in both groups. Baseball may recover in a couple of generations but the prospects for science are dimmer after being tainted with politics.

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  3. Kerry McEvilly Says:

    Wow! That sure was a blast from the past.

    And it’s pretty amazing to see one of the same Representatives I mentioned in my original 2004 post, Rep. Rush Holt, the main impetus behind this new effort to reconstitute the OTA.

    The guy is tenacious!


    Kerry McEvilly

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  5. David Bruggeman Says:


    When was this golden age where science wasn’t politicized?

    And what is your evidence that the public has lost faith in science?

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  7. Maurice Garoutte Says:

    I’m old. In the 1950’s Science and math were pure and unpolluted (At least in my teen mind). Nuclear physics used to develop the atomic bomb was advanced by scientists that were opposed to the use of the bomb. The term “rocket scientist” was used as the epitome of intelligence, and Babe Ruth was home run king.

    Today, the public is bombarded daily with global warming alarmist stories yet the polls show that fewer people believe in AGW. The continuing drumbeat of stories to the effect that “Scientists say the sky is falling” has the same effect on the public psyche as the Sham Wow commercials. The sight of a “leading scientist” extolling a crowd of hippies to political action was emblematic of the end of credibility for science.

    After following the scientific method for a half of a century I no longer assume any credibility for anyone labeled “scientist”. If they are identified as “climate scientist” I get extra skeptical.

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  9. David Bruggeman Says:

    Clearly, you’ve lost faith.

    Going back to the 50s, you have the ostracising of Oppenheimer for his political views and the general disdain of intellectuals (Adlai Stevenson comes to mind). The marginalization of Linus Pauling for his peace efforts came later, as did protests against weapons research like the Lincoln Lab, but I see it as of a kind with the other examples.

    Maybe it’s because I come to this from history rather than personal experience I don’t see such a dramatic shift between then and now. It certainly seems to be more in the open these days.

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  11. Maurice Garoutte Says:

    Understanding drawn from history should be expected to be very different from understanding drawn from experience. History records major episodes in some detail, and those details are available for study later.

    Human memory does not work that way. Episodic memory is fairly short but the semantic meaning from those episodes can be retained for very long terms in (appropriately enough) semantic memory. Also semantic memory is built up from many episodes large and small. Long forgotten words from my father expressing admiration for scientists have added to my semantic memory about science just as much as news stories about Oppenheimer.

    In a few months the public will have forgotten about the episode of Hansen’s rally with the hippies but the general feeling that climate scientists are not to be trusted will remain.

    We agree that differences of opinion are more open now. I will add that disrespect on the internet is rampant.