Creation of a New S&T Congressional Support Body Suggested

WASHINGTON – The House Committee on Science today heard from a panel of expert witnesses, all of whom agreed that there is a gap in the type of science and technology (S&T) advice that Congress currently receives. Specifically, the witnesses called for Congress to have access to in-depth reviews of policy options and their technical implications.

From 1972 to 1995, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a Congressional support office, prepared reports at Congressional request on science and technology issues. However, funding for OTA was eliminated in 1995.

“I was a strong defender of OTA – and I voted against defunding it – but OTA is not likely to be coming back any time soon,” said Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY).

“Also, much of the lament one hears about OTA’s demise is really not a concern about what advice Congress is getting, but rather about what decisions Congress is making,” Boehlert continued. “So it is important to remember that not all people will reach the same policy conclusion based on the same scientific information – even if they understand and accept that information”

Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), who testified at today’s hearing, argued that, “We do not suffer from a lack of information here on Capitol Hill, but from a lack of ability to glean the knowledge and gauge the validity, credibility, and usefulness of the large amounts of information and advice received on a daily basis. Although we would like to believe that the scientific and technical advice and assessment provided from outside remains politically neutral, this is not necessarily the case.”

Dr. Jon Peha, co-editor of Science and Technology Advice for Congress and Professor of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, agreed with the problems laid out by Rep. Holt. Dr. Peha said, “In short, there is a fundamental gap in the information available to Congress. There is no consistent source of in-depth assessments that are balanced, complete, impartial, and produced at a time and in a format that is sensitive to the specific needs of Congress.”

Dr. Albert Teich, Director of Science and Policy Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), spoke of efforts to improve scientific information given to Congress. He said, “Universities and scientific societies, including AAAS, have expanded efforts to bring accurate scientific information to Congress through reports on policy-relevant topics, position statements and scientific briefings.” He then added that shortcomings still exist within the system. “To sum up, information is not in short supply on Capitol Hill, but information is not knowledge,” he said. “Credible sources are needed to provide timely analysis and synthesis of scientific and technical information as a foundation for Congressional decisions.”

Offering a solution to these problems, Dr. Catherine Hunt, President-elect of the American Chemical Society, suggested, “Congress should consider establishing an in-house science and technology unit that supplements their capabilities and provides timely, thorough assessments for decisions on issues involving a wide range of science, engineering, and technology.” She continued, “This unit could be housed in CRS [Congressional Research Service], GAO [Government Accountability Office], or stand alone as a congressional support agency.”

Dr. Peter Blair, Executive Director of the Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences at the National Research Council, raised the possibility of expanding the role of the National Academies to help fill the current gaps in information available to Congress. “The National Academies have enjoyed a longstanding and effective working relationship with Congress on even the most contentious issues,” Blair said. “There are, no doubt, many characteristics of that relationship that could be improved, both to perform the traditional NRC [National Research Council] role more effectively and to provide some opportunities to expand that role.”

Dr. Blair went on to make the comparison that Congress, when considering legislative options, is like a homebuyer. Members might get advice from the equivalents of a real estate agent, the seller, and their friends, but they still needed to hire the equivalent of a trusted housing inspector to dig around on the issues.