Science, Technology, and Democracy:Building a Modern Congressional Technology Assessment Office

Harvard Ash Center

This paper was authored by Daniel Schuman and Zach Graves, and published by the Harvard Ash Center. Click here to read the paper. Or read the one page summary here.

Key Takeaways

  • Congress must overcome political obstacles to invest in its own S&T capacity. This should include the creation of a new technology assessment capability modeled in part on OTA, as well as the creation of additional senior S&T policy positions on committees, in personal offices, and in legislative support agencies like the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and GAO.
  • OTA was designed for Congress as it existed nearly 50 years ago. However, Congress is a very different institution today. A new technology assessment office needs to update the original structure to adapt to the needs of today’s Congress.
  • A new office should expand its scope to cover non-technical values such as ethics, adapt elements from participatory models developed by technology assessment offices abroad, improve the timeliness of its reports, make itself more accessible to rank-and-file members of Congress, adjust its oversight structure to empower its director, and put greater emphasis on economic analysis and market-oriented approaches, as well as other reforms.
  • GAO’s STAA unit has shown significant competence in building its technology assessment capacity. It should continue to take on a significant portion of OTA’s original mission. Congress should consider new authorizing legislation that gives STAA greater autonomy as well as increased resources to support its planned increased from 70 to 140 FTE staffers, and potentially beyond.
  • An optimal strategy is for STAA to continue to take on the bulk of OTA’s original mission but focus on issues primarily concerning federal programs and expenditures. A new, more narrowly focused version of OTA (which we call the Technology Assessment Service or TAS) should be created to complement STAA. This office could engage in more nimble (and long-term) proactive thinking and horizon scanning about emerging technologies and other S&T issues, while simultaneously side-stepping potential  complications that could arise from GAO’s bureaucracy and culture.
  • Beyond technology assessment, Congress should expand its S&T expertise and capacity at CRS, in committees, and in personal offices. However, in a resource-scarce environment, building up technology assessment appears to have the greatest return on investment.

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Dan Lips
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