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Congress Needs the Office of Technology Assessment to Keep up with Science and Technology

The Brief

This Report:

  • Reviews the history of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment
  • Analyzes the current science and technology issues that are challenging Congress
  • Examines recent science and technology initiatives in Congress

Despite the giant leaps in science and technology over the last half-century, Congress has only made small steps toward understanding the new opportunities and challenges that come with every innovation.

As Congress worked to strengthen the military against Cold War era threats and to protect its constituents from polluted air and burning waterways, a Democrat-controlled Congress and Republican president created the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1972. Under the Office of Technology Assessment Act, this office was established to provide Congress with “new and effective means for securing competent, unbiased information concerning the physical, biological, economic, social, and political effects” of technological applications. OTA was governed by a bipartisan group of 12 lawmakers selected by senior leadership in both chambers of Congress. An office director and a committee of the Comptroller General, Director of the Congressional Research Service, and non-governmental scientific or technical experts provided additional oversight of the office. Over the next 23 years, OTA, an office that was usually funded by just two thousandths of a percent of the federal budget, produced 750 reports about scientific and technological impacts on a wide array of topics including the military, healthcare, education, and the environment.

As part of the mid-nineties Contract with America to reduce government spending, OTA was dis-appropriated. While the flow of knowledge from OTA to Congress ceased 24 years ago, Americans have grown ever more dependent on technology. Today, social media disinformation campaigns threaten national security and the integrity of elections. 5G, cryptocurrency, and artificial intelligence all have the potential to revolutionize instant access to life-saving information, the banking industry, and the healthcare sector. However, hearings on these subjects have revealed that Congress lacks the understanding and necessary resources to properly address these critical issues that will shape America’s future.

Despite a belief that the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) could fill the void of OTA, both offices now have a smaller workforce than when OTA existed. It wasn’t until seven years after OTA closed that GAO began conducting technology assessments for Congress. Over the span of 16 years, GAO produced 157 science and technology reports including ones that focused on defense technology, energy, education, and medical devices. There are promising indications that science and technology will become a greater priority at GAO after it established the Science, Technology, Assessment, and Analytics Team (STAA) as its first new mission team in 20 years. This is the closest Congress has gotten to reviving OTA in 24 years.

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Figure 1. Comparing the OTA Assessment Process with the STAA Assessment Process

Source: Compiled using information from the Congress of the United States and GAO.

But with such a wide array of scientific discoveries and technological innovations that continue to alter life, upend what we believe to be possible, and create multifaceted challenges to our laws, additional expertise and resources for Congress are necessary. Congress has directed the Congressional Research Service and the National Academy of Public Administration to author a report to evaluate congressional access to scientific and technical resources and whether Congress should reinstate OTA. The House Appropriations Committee has also provided funding to reopen OTA in the Fiscal Year 2020 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill.

Reviving OTA has garnered bipartisan support from right-leaning and left-leaning think tanks. Polling has also found that Americans believe scientific research, not personal views, should guide the policy decisions that congressmembers make. A revived OTA will also bolster congressional commitment to evidence-based policymaking and complement the recently enacted Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018. Since Congress recognizes that policymaking is most effective when it is based on high quality data and evidence, it is time that that it revives the OTA and allows evidence-based scientific and technical assessments to guide its policymaking.

Today, over a dozen national legislative bodies receive scientific and technical advice from offices that are modeled on OTA. The world’s leading legislative body deserves the best advice on science and technology as we continue to advance into a society that is driven by technology and ever evolving scientific knowledge.

Office of Technology Assessment Timeline

  • 1957

    Sputnik I is launched by the Soviet Union

  • 1962

    The Whitehouse Office of Science and Technology opens

  • 1962

    The cassette tape is invented

  • 1966

    All three major networks broadcast their entire fall primetime schedule in color for the first time

  • 1967

    The first ATM transaction occurs

  • 1969

    The moon landing

  • 1969

    ARPAnet begins sharing data

  • 1971

    The first email is sent

  • 1972

    The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment opens

  • 1972

    Pong debuts as the first widely available arcade game

  • 1973

    The first cell phone call is made

  • 1977

    The first MRI exam occurs

  • 1981

    NASA launches the first space shuttle

  • 1982

    A 15-year old creates the first computer virus in the wild

  • 1983

    The Nintendo Entertainment System makes home video game consoles a permanent fixture in living rooms

  • 1987

    DNA evidence leads to the conviction of an American defendant for the first time

  • 1987

    Prozac is introduced

  • 1988

    In 24 hours, 10% of all computers connected to the internet become infected by a cyber worm

  • 1988

    Caller ID is deployed for the first time

  • 1989

    The first “full-fledged” GPS satellite is launched

  • 1992

    The first text message is sent

  • 1994

    The FDA approves the first genetically modified food

  • 1994

    The Toyota Prius becomes the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle

  • 1995

    The Congressional Office of Technology and Assessment closes

  • 1995

    The first item is purchased on Ebay

  • 1996

    Dolly becomes the first cloned mammal

  • 1997

    WiFi-enabled devices are invented

  • 1998

    The first Google search occurs

  • 1998

    The first segment of the International Space Station launches

  • 1999

    Bluetooth is released

  • 1999

    Americans begin skipping commericals with TiVo

  • 2001

    The majority of Americans start using the internet

  • 2001

    The CIA conducts its first drone strike

  • 2002

    The Government Accountability Office begins conducting technical assessments for Congress

  • 2003

    The Human Genome Project is completed

  • 2003

    Myspace is created

  • 2003

    Skype is founded

  • 2004

    Facebook is founded

  • 2005

    The first video is uploaded to YouTube

  • 2006

    Twitter is founded

  • 2007

    iPhone debuts

  • 2007

    The majority of Americans begin using broadband

  • 2007

    Netflix begins streaming

  • 2009

    Bitcoin becomes available to the public

  • 2010

    Uber provides its first ride

  • 2010

    The first drone that can be controlled by a smartphone with WiFi is released

  • 2013

    The first gun is 3-D printed

  • 2014

    Amazon Echo speaks for the first time

  • 2016

    Oculus Rift is released to the public

  • 2019

    The Government Accountability Office’s Science, Technology, Assessment, and Analytics Team starts

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