On Nov. 14, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) released a report that Congress requested last year to map out options for enhancing lawmakers’ access to science and technology advice.
Although there is growing momentum behind efforts to reestablish Congress’ long-defunct Office of Technology Assessment, the report does not recommend that route. It finds that, while OTA or a similar agency would be a strong mechanism for providing S&T-related advice, it would be difficult to establish and would remain vulnerable to “political challenges” of the sort that led to OTA’s dissolution 24 years ago.
Instead, the report recommends that Congress further build up two of its support agencies, the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service, and improve its own staff’s ability to “absorb and utilize science and technology policy information.” To help strengthen this “absorptive capacity,” the report also recommends Congress employ an S&T advisor, whose office would help recruit other advisors for relevant congressional committees and commission analyses of emerging S&T trends.
Gaps in S&T advice are multifaceted, report finds
The NAPA panel’s report broadly finds that even as S&T-related issues have increased in prevalence, the capacity of congressional staff to deal with them has diminished. It notes that the size of the staffs in member and committee offices has dropped significantly since OTA was disbanded, even as their responsibilities have grown. It further observes,
Staff pay has stagnated, creating a brain drain as staffers move to more lucrative lobbying and think tank jobs. Congress’ own think tanks, the legislative branch support agencies, still have not recovered from two decades of staff cuts. As a result, a significant number of senior congressional staffs do not believe Congress has the resources or knowledge available to do its job.
The report notes that the panel had difficulty even securing interviews with staff members, with some not responding to requests and others replying they were “simply too busy to speak with the study team.” Of the 127 stakeholders interviewed for the report, 24 were current congressional staffers. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), an OTA advocate who was previously a Fermilab physicist, was the only sitting member of Congress to speak with the panel.
Members and staff who participated in the study said their needs for S&T-related expertise take a variety of forms, which the panel grouped into four categories: quick-turnaround support, consultative support, networking, and detailed reports.
Quick-turnaround support entails producing briefing materials that respond in days or hours to specific questions that are prompted, for instance, by constituent requests or unexpected external events. Consultative support entails access to experts who can provide personal advice and, if desired, firm recommendations. The report observes that CRS currently provides such support, though there is a demand for more.
The report documents a “modest gap” in networking support, which entails identifying and contacting “leading authorities on the latest S&T issues of the day” for advice or to serve as witnesses at hearings. Interviewees indicated they would like access to a “standing roster of experts” rather than rely on the contact lists maintained by various congressional offices.
Other options available for OTA-style studies
Reviewing the accomplishments of OTA, the report notes that between its establishment in 1972 and termination in 1995 the office produced “nearly 750 full technology assessments, background papers, technical memoranda, case studies, and workshop proceedings.”
Since OTA’s closure, the report observes that GAO in particular has sought to fill its place in producing such studies. Earlier this year, following congressional direction, GAO consolidated its S&T-related efforts into a Science, Technology, Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team, which it has proposed to expand over the coming years.
The report explains that both GAO and CRS currently produce what it calls “short-to-medium-term reports,” defined as relatively brief summaries of policy issues that are usually peer reviewed. GAO, meanwhile, has taken the lead in producing “technology assessments,” which the report notes are more thorough explorations of S&T-related issues that have a formalized methodology and rigid review requirements. The report recommends GAO establish a core team within STAA to focus solely on both sorts of studies.
In recommending against restoring OTA, the report acknowledges stakeholder concerns about the ability of GAO and CRS to provide the kinds of advice they need. Some expressed concerns about GAO’s reputation in the S&T community and its ability to recruit qualified staff, as well as about the compatibility of GAO’s “audit culture” with more forward-looking analytical work.
The report finds, though, that GAO and CRS have “demonstrated their ability to support Congress on critical S&T issues in a non-partisan, useful manner.” It also conveys the study panel’s belief that GAO can conduct forward-looking analyses, while acknowledging “it will take time for the GAO to build the reputation as the ‘go to’ place for S&T questions and advice.”
Notwithstanding the services an enhanced GAO and CRS could provide, the report finds there would remain a gap in Congress’ ability to absorb S&T policy information. To increase that capacity, the report proposes Congress create an “Office of the Congressional S&T Advisor,” which it envisions as a relatively small entity led by an “eminent individual, widely recognized and respected across the S&T community.”
In addition to coordinating the hiring of committee-level advisors, the office would engage external entities to perform “horizon scanning” activities, which would identify S&T issues that may arise in the future. The report notes there are “fierce champions” of such activities within Congress.
More generally, the report recommends relevant committees employ their own S&T advisors, analogous to their staff legal counsel, and that they collectively establish an external “technical advisory group.” In addition, it recommends that congressional staff hire more individuals with S&T experience, including by expanding the use of fellowship programs and detailees from federal agencies.
OTA decision hangs on government-wide spending deal
Currently, the conversation surrounding congressional S&T advice is centered on a provision in a spending bill the House passed this summer that would provide a revived OTA with startup funding of $6 million.
Speaking on Nov. 20 at an event marking the NAPA report’s release, Yuri Beckelman, deputy chief of staff for OTA advocate Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), argued now is the “closest we’ve ever been” to restoring the office. He said the House bill caps “years and years” of work to rally support for refunding OTA. He also noted Takano has sponsored legislation to address concerns that have been expressed about the office.
Concerning the NAPA report, Beckelman said,
They focused on what they thought was feasible, and I don’t believe that it was NAPA’s job to decide what Congress can defend and what they can’t defend. … It is our job to figure out how to defend it. I can tell you right now that this office of the science and technology advisor is much less defendable than an OTA that’s set up with a bipartisan board that people who are part of it defend, people who use it defend. It’s just much less realistic.
In their own spending legislation, Senate appropriators provided funding for GAO to build up its S&T team, but they allocated nothing for OTA, stating they were awaiting the NAPA report. Now, it is up to lawmakers negotiating a final government-wide spending package to decide whether OTA will be revived in the coming months.
While Beckelman was uncertain if the office would be funded during this budget cycle, he said he remains hopeful about its prospects, remarking, “Whether it happens this year or the next few years, I think you’re going to see something break.”