Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives want to bring back Congress’s long-dead science advice office. A draft funding bill released today calls for providing $6 million to re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which Republican lawmakers killed in 1995.
Congress established OTA in 1972 to advise federal lawmakers on a wide range of science-related issues. During its existence, it churned out some 750 reports and white papers assessing the potential promise, peril, and policy challenges associated with emerging technologies such as genetic engineering and space-based weaponry. Fans of the office lauded its reports, but some Republican lawmakers came to view it as duplicative, wasteful, and biased against their party. During the 1994 elections, then-Representative Newt Gingrich (R–GA) vowed to kill the office if his party took control of Congress, which it did. At the time of OTA’s dismantling in 1995, it had about 140 staffers and a budget of roughly $21 million.
Since then, numerous advocacy organizations and politicians, including AAAS in Washington, D.C., (publisher of ScienceInsider) and 2016 presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, have called for restoring OTA. And when Democrats took control of the House after last year’s elections, they promised to consider ways to make that happen.
Today, Representative Tim Ryan (D–OH), the chair of the House appropriations panel that oversees the legislative branch’s spending, followed through on that pledge by including money for OTA in a $3.9 billion spending bill for the 2020 fiscal year that begins 1 October. Restoring OTA, Ryan said in a statement, “will help Congress understand technology developments and pave the way for better technology and science policy.” The agency would “provide unbiased expert assistance to help Congress understand the potential and the risks of technological developments and the policy options for addressing issues those developments raise,” states a fact sheet accompanying the bill.
Ryan’s subcommittee is expected to approve the OTA funding Wednesday, and it is also likely to get a friendly reception in the full House, which is controlled by Democrats. But it’s not clear whether the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, will include funding for OTA in its version of the legislative branch funding bill, which has yet to appear.
Today’s move “is an important step and long overdue,” says AAAS CEO Rush Holt. “It represents a foot in the door that could allow OTA to turn the lights on and get the office going so that it can grow to a functional size.”