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The Sciences

The Push for Restarting the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment

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I'm starting to detect some buzz on this very important front, which I wrote about in detail in 2005's The Republican War on Science and elsewhere. Basically, the story is this: In 1995 the Gingrich Republicans, looking to slash budgets--and looking askance at science in general in many areas--got rid of their scientific advisory office, which had been in existence since 1972 and had become world renowned not only for accurate studies, but for far-ranging analyses that forecast future science and technology problems that we might someday have to grapple with. For our unfailingly presentist elected representatives, this was a vital source of perspective on where things are heading. Technically OTA was merely defunded by the Gingrichites, rather than thoroughly dismantled. And one of its champions, my own legislator Rush Holt of Princeton, New Jersey, is now pushing to bring it back. See the details here from Science Cheerleader, who wants not only to reopen OTA but to include a more significant public participation component in its technological decisionmaking--an advance that I for one would thoroughly welcome. Meanwhile, over at Science Progress, former OTA staffer Jerry Epstein lays out the case for why we need OTA to be revived: Decision-making is perhaps more dependent on scientific and technological knowledge than ever, and yet scientific misinformation also abounds more than ever thanks to the growth of ideological think tanks and the Internet. In this context, Congress is literally flying blind. There is no body of consensus information that our legislators can use for the purposes of decision-making; but there is a heck of a lot of nonsense being fed to them constantly. OTA served, as one legislator memorably put it, as a "defense against the dumb"; without it, Congress is defenseless. So we most certainly ought to bring OTA back, and let's hope that Holt succeeds--but it won't be easy. Republicans defunded OTA, but Democrats have not yet revived it--and the politics of science have only become more tense since 1995. So to show your support, sign the OTA petition here--and contact your legislators!

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