(Washington, DC) How Congress processes the science and technology information it receives and how it uses this information in its decision-making has been a concern since Congress made the partisan decision to close its Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995. Today, The U.S. House Committee on Science examined how Congress receives advice on science and discussed areas for improvement.

“Keeping America on the cutting edge – in technology, in education, in business – requires access to the best available knowledge. Congress should constantly be seeking better ways to obtain and incorporate the foremost scientific and engineering knowledge into our legislative activities,” said Ranking Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN).

In the early 1960s famed pilot Charles Lindbergh came to Congress concerned that the Earth was headed for disaster unless the balance between science and ecology was properly adjusted. His efforts sparked the Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development, to suggest creation of a Technology Assessment Board to serve as an “early warning” system regarding dangerous side effects of technology in environment and elsewhere. From those discussions came several science information resources for Congress, including the OTA.

OTA produced a highly regarded body of work, approximately 700 studies, over its 20 year history. Many of the studies still have value today, eleven years after OTA’s closing. Today’s discussions centered on prospects and grounds for reviving organizations like OTA in an effort to improve science advice to Congress.

“We do not suffer from a lack of information here on Capitol Hill, but from a lack of ability to glean the knowledge and to gauge the validity, credibility, and usefulness of the large amounts of information and advice received on a daily basis,” added Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), a strong advocate for reestablishing OTA. “We need unbiased technical and scientific assessments in a Congressional time-frame by those who are familiar with the functions, the language, and the workings of Congress.”

Witnesses agreed this hearing marked a unique opportunity to begin to rethink the type of internal scientific and technical support the legislative branch needs in the first quarter of the 21st century. Given the vastly increased availability of scientific and technical information since the days of OTA, any replacement should be designed to recognize the post-Internet changes in the way Congress and its staff gets information and the increasing speed with which scientific and technical information can become out of date.

Dr. Albert Teich, Director of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS reminded, “Information is not in short supply on Capitol Hill, but information is not knowledge. Credible sources are needed to provide timely analysis and synthesis of scientific and technical information as a foundation for Congressional decisions.”

“We could use a service like OTA today since relatively few Members of Congress have formal training and experience as scientists and engineers, and since much of the information we receive comes from distinct, often biased points of view,” added Rep. Gordon. “I see this hearing as a much needed step toward improving the way in which Congress receives and uses scientific and technical advice.”