The Quiet Defunding of the OTA
December 15, 2011 | by Alison Fairbrother
In 2010, geneticist J. Craig Venter created the first synthetic life form, a genome based on an existing bacterium. The field of synthetic biology raises a host of scientific questions — from potential applications in medicine, agricultural production, and renewable energy to the possibility that synthetic organisms could be used for bio-warfare. Many of these questions remain unanswered, or are being addressed piecemeal by various committees and non-profit organizations. No Congressional agency exists to supply legislators with unbiased analysis of this new technology's costs, benefits, or risks.
It wasn't always this way. From 1972 to 1995 — the year of the Gingrich Revolution — Congress could count on the Office of Technology Assessment. Although it was little known outside the Beltway, the OTA enjoyed an outsized reputation on the Hill as a nonpartisan body that could distill complex information into comprehensive reports, and present a range of policy options that were congruous with the best available science.
In 1995, the OTA was the smallest federal agency, with a budget of less than $22 million. It was bipartisan, governed by a board of six Republicans and six Democrats from the House and the Senate. And it was responsive to requests for assessments from chairs and ranking members of House and Senate committees.
During its 23-year tenure, the OTA produced about 750 reports on some of the most contentious topics confronting the Congress: health care, national security, energy, education, agricultural production, transportation, climate change, and environmental protection. Legislators on opposing sides of policy debates cited the OTA's reports. With a staff of fewer than 200 scientists, OTA representatives testified before Congress, provided resources in support of high-profile legislation such as the Clean Air Act, and saved the government money by identifying flaws in unproven technologies and suggesting cost-saving measures for existing ones.
The OTA saved lives, too. Its studies provided the foundational economic rationale for expanding Medicaid coverage of prenatal care to millions of women living in poverty, as well as paving the way for the expansion of Medicare coverage to include routine exams like Pap smears for older women.
Perhaps as important as the body of work the OTA produced was the culture it engendered in Congress, anticipating new technologies and elevating debate. An OTA study on the global effects of climate change helped Congress evaluate 131 pieces of legislation. A 1995 report called "Renewing our Energy Future" identified second-generation biofuels as a possibility for growth. An early OTA effort led to the Human Genome Project, which created jobs and advances in medicine and opened up the field of biotechnology.
In 1995, the OTA became one of the casualties of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." The agency died the same day that Congress eliminated free haircuts for members and a House parking lot. "This was seen as a symbolically important entity to get rid of. Newt Gingrich, who gets all the credit these days for being an intellect, was the chief advocate for its elimination," says former Democratic Congressman Vic Fazio, who sponsored an amendment that would have paid for OTA's operations. Republican Rep. Amo Houghton attempted to save the agency by trimming its budget and housing it in the Library of Congress. His slogan for the effort was "You don't cut the future."
The loss of the OTA created a vacuum that has been filled by politicized sources. "Information has become something that comes from everywhere and goes into this soup that is indiscriminately inhaled," says Francesca Grifo at the Union of Concerned Scientists. What's more, says political scientist Bruce Bimber, shutting down the agency "had the effect of helping clear the way for the kind of anti-science mood that has taken over the Republican party in the decades since. If you think about the big science-denial questions like creationism and climate change, these became giant issues after the death of OTA."
In 2010, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) sponsored an amendment that would have provided a modest $2.5 million to restart the OTA, with funds to come out of the House Historic Buildings Revitalization Trust Fund. He tried again in 2011, but failed to garner support. According to Holt, there is a long list of policy issues that Congress could have legislated more effectively if the OTA still existed, including vaccine shortages, flood levy design, expanding medical care to underserved areas, and oil-spill cleanup. "It should be so clear that we need this. Fifteen or twenty years ago, we might have said we're not going to make any stupid mistakes. But we now have all these years since OTA where we've made one stupid mistake after another," Holt said in a phone interview.
If there is any good news in all of this, it's that Newt Gingrich and his Contract for America champions never bothered to abolish the agency. They only de-funded it. The Technology Assessment Act of 1972 is still on the books — all it needs is an appropriation.
"The OTA worked on an enormous variety of things that are still relevant today. The best argument for bringing OTA back is the relevance of their work, the usefulness of the reports...on everything from testing in schools, to bioengineering crop production, to retiring old cars to save gasoline and reduce emissions, to adverse reactions to vaccines, to treatment of Alzheimer's. Some of the earliest and best work on Alzheimer's policy was done at OTA. Some of the best work on missile defense was done at OTA. One reason for its undoing was that it challenged the ideology of people who wanted to believe that missile defense would work despite the evidence. OTA was not a crusading agency. It didn't exist to advance ideologies over evidence."
— Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ)
Alison Fairbrother is the director of the Public Trust Project, which investigates and exposes misrepresentations of science by corporations and government.