What Happened to OTA?

I haven’t read Chris Mooney’s new book, The Republican War on Science yet, but a piece he recently wrote for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists probably gives a flavor of the argument. Mooney reports on how, after the GOP took the House in 1994, the party quickly abolished the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in order to save a few measly million bucks—peanuts in the grand scheme of government spending. Prior to that, OTA had provided Congress with comprehensive and unbiased scientific assessments of various public policy issues; yet conservatives harking back to the 1980s had despised the agency after it voiced skepticism over the feasibility of the Reagan administration’s Star Wars project.

The problem, of course, is that no other agency is currently doing the sort of publicly available, easily readable, comprehensive assessments that OTA could do. The National Academy of Sciences does very extensive studies that take years to do, not always appropriate for judging policy debates, while the Congressional Research Service does more “he said, she said” type reports, laying out the arguments on all sides in brief, rather than sorting through the bickering and giving solid answers as to who’s right and wrong. Without agencies like the OTA, political groups and partisan think tanks are free to seize the mantle of science with their own, often biased, scientific assessments of policy. As a result, science in Washington has become truly postmodern—with truth claimed by those who can shout the loudest, rather than those who are actually, you know, right.

The irony here is that it’s not entirely clear that the Gingrich Republicans intended all of this—mainly they just wanted some agency to kill in order to look like they were cutting government waste, and the OTA had irked Reagan less than a decade earlier. Gingrich himself was and is a technology buff. But it certainly goes hand in hand with what Mooney describes as conservative distrust of scientists and technocrats, and the overriding belief that the free market and business interests provide the real driving force behind scientific progress—even if actual scientists are saying otherwise.