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Monday, January 29, 2018

Bring Back the Office of Technology Assessment

In 1972, Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment to provide it with advice and analysis on scientific and technological issues.  In 1995, Congress closed it.  At R Street, Zach Graves and Kevin Kosar call for reviving it.
When the OTA was shuttered, the technology landscape was dramatically diferent than it is today. At that time, the Internet was still emerging from within the walls of government and academia.118 Only a tiny percentage of the public owned cellular phones, and they lacked functions like GPS, internet connectivity and social media. Now, the Internet is ubiquitous and smartphones are becoming common in the developing world.119 Indeed, technological complexity has grown fantastically over the past two decades and there is no reason to believe the pace of innovation will slow. But as technology advances, it also creates challenges for our elected ofcials to comprehend its impacts and to enact sensible policies around it, which includes updating and clearing out old laws and regulations.
 Maintaining the status quo all but guarantees that suboptimal or outright bad policies will be made more frequently. Failing to augment Congress’ technological expertise also ensures the preferences of executive branch agencies and private interests hold the greatest sway in technology policy decisions, to the detriment of the public interest. To address this, Congress needs to bring back its nerds.
Rather than to reinvent the wheel, Congress can most easily bolster its technology policy knowledge by reviving the OTA. The agency’s costs are nominal–a veritable rounding error in the legislative branch’s $4.4 billion budget—to say nothing of  the federal government’s $3.9 trillion in annual spending.120 Further, the OTA’s statute remains on the books so Congress could revive the agency merely by including funding in the
next legislative appropriations. To address concerns about the agency’s research agenda, Congress could include directive text to appoint the agency’s initial board and leadership.
Although it will take political courage, reviving the OTA would be easy. Doing nothing, on the other hand, only ensures that Congress’ technological aptitude will erode even further.
 116. “Advising the Nation. Advancing the Discussion. Connecting New Frontiers,” National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2018.; and “FAQs,” National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2018. index.html.117. NAS’ charter provides no role for the Congress – or the president, for that matter– in selecting its leadership. See 36 U.S.C. §§ 150301-150304.118. “1994 -2008 - 14 Years of Web Statistics,” University of Virginia, July 16, 2009. Jacob Poushter, “Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage Continues to Climbin Emerging Economies,” Pew Research Center, Feb. 22, 2016.