A modernized OTA is a key step in addressing Congress’s S&T capacity gap

by Daniel Schuman and Zach Graves

Last week, bipartisan bicameral legislation was introduced by Reps. Mark Takano (D-CA) and Bill Foster (D-IL), and Sens. Maizie Hirono (D-HI) and Thom Tillis (R-NC), aimed at strengthening Congress’s ability to understand science and technology policy issues. (H.R. 4426, S. 2509) We welcome these developments and are encouraged to see ongoing bipartisan support for enhancing Congress’s science and technology capacity and expertise.

Congress last had an office focused on providing analytical support on science and technology in the 1990s, then known as the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The Tillis-Takano approach is an important first step to modernize how Congress assesses science and technology matters, and builds on the strengths of the OTA model, which includes non-partisanship, wide expertise, and rigorous analysis. It seeks to bring that model up to date through: (1) Developing faster-turnaround products in addition to traditional technology assessments, which took an average of 18 months to produce at OTA; (2) Being more accessible to rank-and-file Members of Congress, as opposed to OTA’s focus on serving committees; (3) Developing a strategy to be complementary with GAO’s newly expanded Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team and recently launched Center for Strategic Foresight.

Modernizing OTA is essential because Congress is a very different institution than when OTA existed. Committees are structurally weaker and have fewer specialized policy staff, more resources in general have shifted from policy to communications and constituent services, and there’s more polarization particularly around certain issues in this domain. Additionally, congressional staff get information in different ways in the digital era. Instead of competing with physical books and white papers, a revived science and technology assessment entity will be competing with Wikipedia and Google for staffers’ attention.

Notably, this legislation was introduced before the release of a congressionally-mandated study by the National Academy of Public Administration on technology assessment and congressional S&T capacity. This study is expected to be finalized on October 31st, 2019. We look forward with interest to that study and where the recommendations between NAPA and legislators overlap. In addition, we encourage the Committee on House Administration (where the House version of this bill was referred) to undertake a new series of hearings on this topic following the NAPA study’s release.

Resources on S&T advice for Congress