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Office of Technology Assessment: It’s time for a second coming

Photo illustration/Nicole Vas

Congress must deal with a growing number of issues that new technological developments are forcing on the nation. I deliberately write “forcing” because the way technology works, no one asks the nation – or its elected representatives – if we need or want a given new technology. Any investor or engineer, these days more often a startup group or a tech corporation, can make the nation adapt to whatever they concoct.

For instance, a small group of young hotshot engineers is perfecting deep fake, a technology that enables one to make a video that will seem to be a very authentic presentation by a well-known politician, only it is completely made up. To consider the implications of this new “gift” to mankind, imagine that a day before the election, a candidate states that she has changed her mind and now favors something that will completely antagonize her base. By the time denials are issued and the truth comes out, the election may well be lost.

All of this does not point to the need for some licensing board to which technologists will have to apply before they can proceed — but to a growing and urgent need for the nation to have the capacity to learn about new technological developments as early as possible, and prepare to deal with the consequences. And, possibly, in some rare cases we’ll need to impose some restrictions on these developments.

Individual members of Congress and their staffs often do not have the resources, time or sufficient technical backgrounds to carry out such assessments. Hence the merit of recent moves to reestablish an Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to play a major role in preparing technological assessments for Congress. 

Last April Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) included funding for OTA in a 2020 spending bill. But when the matter was discussed during a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in December, only a few members seemed to favor a full revival of the OTA.

The value of the defunct OTA is captured in an op-ed by Celia Wexler, the senior Washington representative at the Center for Science and Democracy. Wexler wrote:

“The information they provided was used to make smart and applicable policy decisions. A 1984 study questioning the reliability of polygraph tests led Congress to enact limits on their use by employers. Another report from 1994 helped lawmakers assess the Social Security Administration’s computer procurement plan, and ended up saving the government $368 million. OTA reports in 1987 and 1990, which concluded that Pap smears and mammograms for older women could save thousands of lives, were instrumental in extending Medicare reimbursement for these tests.”

In 1972, Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to counsel senators and members of the House of Representatives on topics related to science and technology. Its ambitious goal was “to give Congress technical expertise equal to that available to the executive branch through its many departments and agencies.” The OTA board included representatives of both political parties and houses of Congress.

For over 20 years it produced approximately 750 reports dealing with issues raised by new technologies.

Congress defunded the OTA in 1995, keeping a promise that Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) made during the successful Republican election campaign in 1994. Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), who chaired the House Science Committee, disapproved of the OTA, argued that the pieces of legislation its reports were meant to inform often had to proceed without them due to the amount of time it took the OTA to produce a report.

The director of the agency acknowledged that it did not always finish reports in time to inform legislation. But he noted that agency researchers had testified about their work in progress at hearings and prepared less lengthy interim reports, when requested.

No single reason was given for the closing of the OTA. But “some Republican lawmakers came to view it as duplicative, wasteful and biased against their party.”

Another factor in the demise of OTA were, oddly, its neutrality. A former head of the OTA, Dr. John H. Gibbons, put it this way: “If you belong to everyone, you belong to no one.”

Another complaint was the dearth of public participation. Jathan Sadowski of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University explained that “[i]t did not adequately collect and examine the perspectives of a wider citizenry—by, say, changing up their advisory panels or through methods like opinion polling and consensus conferences.”

A major reason why the OTA must be revived is the accelerating pace of technological innovation, including in countries such as China. To illustrate, we need to assess the effect of AI (whether advanced in the U.S., China, Israel or elsewhere) on the destruction of jobs; the safety of driverless autos; the morality of the use of CRISPR for genetic engineering; facial recognition as a public safety tool; the impact of social media on democracy and society; and much more.

There seems to be ample work for at least one OTA. But it may well need to draw on the help of other organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, the NSF and DARPA.

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. Click here to watch a recent, four-minute video “Political and Social Life after Trump.” His latest book, “Reclaiming Patriotism,” was published by University of Virginia Press in 2019 and is available for download without charge.

Tags CRISPR Newt Gingrich Office of Technology Assessment Ota Technology assessment Tim Ryan

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