Congress Needs Science and Technology Advice

One of the more notable takeaways from the Facebook hearings was the obvious gap in technical literacy on display by many members of Congress. This made it difficult for many observers, myself included, to chart a line of sight to rational — and necessary — legislation about data protection. While it is unreasonable to expect our policymakers be expert in all areas they consider, there is clearly a material gap in technical literacy that needs to be filled in Congress in order for our government to legislate effectively.

Science and technology underpin many of the most important issues facing society today — and, therefore, many of the most critical legislative decisions before Congress. Legislators ought to consider the best evidence surrounding the issue they are legislating and adequately understand the technical implications of their decisions. This is not at all a partisan issue; it goes to the core of our democracy.

We’ve been here before. In 1972, Congress established the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to provide its members with objective and authoritative analysis of the scientific and technological issues of the day — pollution, nuclear energy, pesticides, etc. The establishing legislation noted that, “As technology continues to change and expand rapidly, its applications are (1) large and growing in scale; and (2) increasingly extensive, pervasive, and critical in their impact, beneficial and adverse, on the natural and social environment. Therefore, it is essential that, to the fullest extent possible, the consequences of technological applications be anticipated, understood, and considered in determination of public policy on existing and emerging national problems.”

The OTA was shut down in 1995 in what was ostensibly a cost-saving measure by Newt Gingrich. The move was criticized by both parties. Republican representative Amo Houghton said at the time that “we are cutting off one of the most important arms of Congress when we cut off unbiased knowledge about science and technology.” In his defeated proposal to reinstate the OTA years later, Democratic representative Rush Holt noted that, “When OTA shut down, technological topics did not become less relevant to the work of Congress. They just became less understood. And scientific thinking lost its toehold on Capitol Hill, with troubling consequences for the ways Congress approaches all issues — not just those that are explicitly scientific.”

At this most critical moment for democracy in the United States — where “facts” are not what they once were — and with an increasingly complex science and technology policy agenda before Congress, Paul Ryan should establish a new, modern, non-partisan advisory apparatus that enables America to lead in matters of science, technology, and society as it leads in science and technology.

Please consider signing and sharing this new petition: https://www.change.org/p/paul-ryan-restore-science-tech-advice-to-government