Join 3,553 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Rise, fall, and legacy of the Office of Technology Assessment
May 13, 2014 12:31 PM   Subscribe

On October 13, 1972, the Technology Assessment Act was put into law as a bipartisan effort to promote scientific understanding for Congress members. The act created the nonpartisan Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which released over 750 studies in its 24 years of operation. The OTA was defunded in 1995, part of Newt Gingrich's efforts to "dismantle Congressional institutions that employed people with the knowledge, training and experience to know a harebrained idea when they saw it." (Bruce Bartlett, NYT Economix blog). It was seen by some as "Reagan's Revenge" (Google books preview) for OTA's critical reports (Gbp) in 1985 (PDF) and 1988 (PDF) of the potential for Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, aka "Star Wars"). Chris Mooney looked back on OTA in Requiem for an office (PDF), and both the Federation of American Scientists and Princeton University have OTA report archives online.

Though the Office is no more, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has a Technology Assessment component, which initially ran a pilot program from 2002-2006 (Google books preview for easy reference; available as a free PDF or HTML text), completing four technology assessment reports in that time.

The Sunlight Foundation has noted efforts to re-start OTA over the years. In 2012, Jathan Sadowsk wrote The Much-Needed and Sane Congressional Office That Gingrich Killed Off and We Need Back for the Atlantic, chronicling the history and decline of OTA, and why it would be valuable in the present. New Jersey Representative Rush Holt continues to call for the re-establishment of OTA, but no real progress has been made to date.

Elsewhere, other countries have established similar efforts, and the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment is a network of technology assessment (TA) institutions specializing in advising parliamentary bodies in Europe (Wikipedia).
posted by filthy light thief (26 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
from the bartlett column:
In a speech in New Hampshire, Mr. Gingrich said the C.B.O. “is a reactionary socialist institution
hahaha what
posted by p3on at 12:36 PM on May 13 [4 favorites]


When there's no one to fact-check your statements, you can claim your words are just as accurate as what anyone else says.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:43 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


I miss the OTA, their publication Civilian Space Stations and the U.S. Future in Space was influential on me 30 years ago. My copy is long gone, so thanks for the link to the report archive at Princeton.
posted by Rob Rockets at 12:51 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


In a speech in New Hampshire, Mr. Gingrich said the C.B.O. “is a reactionary socialist institution..."

I hate New Hampshire reactionary socialist institutions. [Puts on dark sunglasses. Gets into black Cadillac and floors it. Hilarity ensues.]
posted by jonp72 at 12:56 PM on May 13


Somewhat related, there's an effort afoot right now to create a single repository for reports written by government agencies and delivered to Congress. Right now, there are hundreds of mandatory reports written or compiled by government agencies and delivered to Congress (some probably of higher quality than others), but supposedly the vast majority of them are never read and just get tossed. There's no public archive or public-facing website where they can be analyzed externally, except sometimes via the website of the agency that creates them, if they choose to do that.

So on one hand we have little impartial, expert analysis, and on the other hand we have such a huge volume of reports in such minute detail that they never get read or used. It's a signal-to-noise problem where there's both too little signal and too much noise.

An easy and seemingly uncontroversial first step would be to publicize and archive all the current reports that go to Congress, so that external observers could at least perform their own analysis, since Congress itself isn't / won't.

I'm not suggesting that crowdsourcing is an adequate replacement for an expert agency like the OTA, but in the absence of the political interest to revive such an agency and (perhaps much more difficult) keep it both expert and impartial, it would be more access and more analysis than is currently the case.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:58 PM on May 13 [6 favorites]


When there's no one to fact-check your statements, you can claim your words are just as accurate as what anyone else says.

Bingo. Also, reality has a well-known liberal bias. I'm just waiting for them to get around to killing off the NIH once & for all.
posted by aramaic at 1:00 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Even billionaires and senators need new livers and kidneys, so the NIH will continue. Research into contraception or the effects of poverty in childhood development will not.
posted by benzenedream at 1:17 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


Kadin2048, there is a staggering number of reports created by federal agencies (I know, I'm responsible for some of them), and while I think that about 90% of them are useless to anyone outside of the bureaucracy I also think that they should be well-indexed and available through a public-facing website. I guess I'm saying that I agree with you, but if I don't use 1,500 words to do it I have to rewrite my comment.
posted by wintermind at 1:21 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


Why would you read a stuffy OTA report when you can get an industry representative to hook you up through their non-profit with a trip to Brazil (to meet their "experts") and seal the deal on a nice fat campaign contribution next year?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:26 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


Federal government reports printed by the Government Printing Office should already be in the Catalog of U.S. Government Publications. More than 3000 reports can be found by searching for [Keywords="report to congress" NOT SuDoc Call Number /= "Y?"]*. The catalog has an extensive classification system, the Superintendent of Documents (SuDocs) Classification Scheme. The documents are available either on the Internet or in one of hundreds of Federal Depository Libraries.

* Documents created by Congress have SuDoc call numbers that start with Y.
posted by grouse at 1:33 PM on May 13 [11 favorites]


When there's no one to fact-check your statements, you can claim your words are just as accurate as what anyone else says.

Marco Rubio Says Scientists Are Wrong: 'Human Activity' Does Not Cause Climate Change


Meanwhile....

Germany Sets New Record, Generating 74 Percent Of Energy Needs From Renewable Energy
posted by Room 641-A at 1:40 PM on May 13 [4 favorites]


filthy light thief: "When there's no one to fact-check your statements, you can claim your words are just as accurate as what anyone else says."

Exactly. The OTA's cardinal sin was that they spoke truth to power and refused to toe the line of either party, when Congress and the executive branch wanted the final word on what their party's varnished "message" to the public would be.

From the Chris Mooney essay (PDF: Requiem for an Office link from the FPP):
OTA developed a stellar international reputation as well. Scores of policy makers from overseas visited the office to learn how it worked, a series of interchanges that led to the creation of OTA analogues in European legislatures--including the United Kingdom Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and the German Parliament's Technology Assessment Bureau. When the U.S. Congress then did away with OTA in 1995, other nations were stunned. "That the leading technological state in the world, a democracy like us, should have abolished its own main means of democratic assessment left us aghast," wrote Lord Kennet, who created an umbrella group of mini-OTAs called the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment Network.

posted by zarq at 1:48 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


74% of electricity from renewables perhaps, not energy.
posted by biffa at 2:03 PM on May 13


I love browsing pre-DTP government documents. They're just so solidly informative, and have usually been laid out by someone who clearly knew what they were doing.
posted by scruss at 2:33 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


I hate New Hampshire reactionary socialist institutions. [Puts on dark sunglasses. Gets into black Cadillac 1974 Dodge Monaco and floors it. Hilarity ensues.]
posted by stenseng at 2:54 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


This was something Bill Clinton should have championed, if he were not so busy "ending welfare as we know it" and de-regulating banks. So don't blame Newt alone, he was such an effective "boogieman" that he had a Reign of Terror that only lasted 4 years.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:21 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


On Sunday, Germany’s impressive streak of renewable energy milestones continued, with renewable energy generation surging to a record portion — nearly 75 percent — of the country’s overall energy demand by midday. ... With wind and solar in particular filling such a huge portion of the country’s power demand, electricity prices actually dipped into the negative for much of the afternoon, according to Renewables International.

Day-um.
posted by Poldo at 4:49 PM on May 13


If you follow the link to its source you will see it is power and not energy demand.
posted by biffa at 5:06 PM on May 13


Corporations can make a lot of money on a government doing stupid things. Therefore keeping it stupid [at least 'officially'] is important to these corporate traitors and limited liability thieves.
posted by SteveLaudig at 5:07 PM on May 13


One OTA by-product I enjoyed reading many years ago was The Myth of the Global Corporation, a book by four people from the OTA project team. IIRC, it demonstrates a number of ways in which multi-national corporations generally continue to structure themselves and invest in ways that reflect institutional constraints of their country of origin. I don't know if that's an obvious point to make, but at the time, others were making a lot of noise about, you know, big international zaibatsu organizations doing just whatever, anywhere. And I like the example of global investment strategies being conditioned and constrained by locally-learned behaviors, because that's a nice reminder about what culture is--not some sort of primordial value orientation shared by ethnic groups or whatnot but rather any shared sets of practices so ingrained you just don't notice them and have trouble recognizing alternatives.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:51 PM on May 13 [4 favorites]


I'm confused - which future are we working for again? I thought it was supposed to be Blade Runner, but now it's looking a lot like Memoirs Found in a Bathtub.
posted by sneebler at 6:15 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


I'm confused - which future are we working for again?

Game of Thrones.

(What? If Star Wars could be "long long ago", Game of Thrones could easily be a vision of the future... "a Facebooker always pays his debts"...)
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:29 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


I'm confused - which future are we working for again?

They are working for Elysium. There is no "we".
posted by T.D. Strange at 9:44 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


I love browsing pre-DTP government documents. They're just so solidly informative, and have usually been laid out by someone who clearly knew what they were doing.

Many documents from this period until now have been typeset using GPO's Microcomp system. The GPO publications Publishing From a Full Text Data Base and Coding for Selected Publications describe this somewhat elaborate system.
posted by grouse at 4:48 AM on May 14 [3 favorites]


Oh, they were so useful in energy policy (eg ). And that's why they would get defunded day 1 by the house. Climate change, environmental effects of projects, nuclear power.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:55 AM on May 14


grouse: Many documents from this period until now have been typeset using GPO's Microcomp system. The GPO publications Publishing From a Full Text Data Base and Coding for Selected Publications describe this somewhat elaborate system.

From the Publishing document:
PREFACE

The Government Printing Office has converted from hot metal to photocomposition. ...
Wait, seriously? Hot metal typesetting sounds really, really intense. Phototypesetting sounds less ... hot, but I'm astounded how far we've come in a few decades.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:03 PM on May 14


« Older Equaldex: the collaborative LGBT knowledgebase!...  |  The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtl... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments