Computing Applications Viewpoints

IT Policy: Science Policy Isn’t Always About Science

What is the appropriate role and level of influence for science and technical advice in policy deliberations?
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Thirteen years ago this month, a newly empowered Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, committed to a "Contract with America" that included self-imposed austerity measures in an effort to reduce the size of government, took aim at a small legislative branch agency with the job of providing non-partisan, objective information to Congress about the impact of technology. By agreeing to shutter the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995, Congress managed to save $22 million in the roughly $2 billion appropriations bill funding congressional salaries, support staff, and related operations—and committed what one critic has called a "stunning act of self-lobotomy."a

The OTA’s mission was to help resolve a challenging problem for policymakers—navigating the intersection of technical and scientific issues with policymaking. During its 23 years of operation it produced more than 750 reports on a wide variety of products from fusion energy to infertility. But Congress had begun to question the relevancy of the agency, noting that there were other entities like the General Accounting Office (now Government Accountability Office), the National Academies, and the Congressional Research Service that were providing ostensibly similar products to Congress. The Republican Chair of the House Science Committee complained that though the agency produced detailed and voluminous reports, they often lagged critical debates and languished on Congressional shelves.b In addition, though the agency strived to produce reports that were scientifically rigorous and non-partisan, reports questioning the goals and technical feasibility of the Reagan Administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative anti-ballistic missile system soured the office to many of SDI’s supporters in Congress.

The Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, railed against the office and its 150-member staff, claiming that what Congress needed was scientists and engineers speaking directly to members of Congress, not working through the filter of OTA’s "bureaucracy." The OTA made for "bureaucratic science," he later said.c "Congress needs first-rate scientists talking to its members. It does not need congressional staff analysts talking to congressional staff members to develop staff-driven documents that are then presented to congressmen."d

Though OTA and its supporters answered these criticisms—for example, many pointed out that while GAO, the National Academies, and CRS all produced reports, none were equipped or attempted to bridge policy and science in the way that OTA did; and the idea of members of Congress each having the wherewithal to identify appropriate voices from the technical fields on their own to glean from them the key points relevant to making policy was somewhat absurd—the politics of the moment overwhelmed them and the agency lost its funding.

The elimination of OTA set simmering a debate in policy circles about the role and prominence of science and technical advice in policy deliberations that continues today. Much of that discussion, including some that has appeared in previous issues of Communications,e is focused on making a renewed case for a native technical assessment capability for Congress and refuting the claims of OTA’s critics. There have been several legislative attempts to revive the agency in the 13 years since its closing, but none have gained serious traction—though the FY 2008 Omnibus appropriation included $2.5 million for a small technical assessment role for the GAO.

While it is easy to see this development as a net loss for the science community—and on balance, it likely is—when thinking about its implications it is also easy to lose sight of a more fundamental truth about science and policy: the presence of a rational scientific argument does not guarantee that Congress will do the "right thing."

In our experience as two people who serve at the interface between the science community and policymakers, we frequently hear the frustration from researchers and engineers about the failures of Congress to act in "rational" ways regarding new technologies. On everything from security, to privacy, to voting, to research funding, to intellectual property issues, there is a sense that "if they only had the right information, they’d make the right decision." This is part of the impulse behind the move to restore OTA.

But what made OTA’s job so difficult, and what presents a broader challenge to the entire scientific community, is that the nexus of science and technology and public policy is layered over a political system. Decisions on public policy are not made in the abstract based on the best technical information; they are made by policymakers balancing numerous interests from numerous constituencies. Balancing these interests is a political calculus, not a scientific one. In developing it, scientific information is sometimes pivotal, sometimes sits on the sidelines, and sometimes ends up as a mix where compromise may or may not embrace a technical truth. It is difficult to predict what factors will motivate specific policy debates because the political system is ever changing. While there are always a good number of members of Congress who can see the importance of making the correct decision versus the political one, party politics demands a consistent view toward self-preservation. For better or worse, in the political calculus the paramount concern is how a decision impacts a member back home.

An apt example of the tension between the "right" course of action and politics in a current context is the fight for increased funding for the physical sciences (which, in Washington, D.C. parlance includes such non-life science fields such as computing, mathematics, chemistry, and engineering). In August 2007, Congress and the president overwhelmingly passed the bipartisan America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) Act, which sought to bolster America’s innovation ecosystem by setting a goal of doubling over seven years of the research budgets at three key science agencies—the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)—and creating and expanding science and math education programs.

The COMPETES Act was modeled on the recommendations of a National Academies report chaired by former Lockheed Martin Chairman Norman Augustine called Rising Above the Gathering Storm. That report was put together at the request of a number of members of Congress who were concerned about the rising drumbeat of reports that the U.S. was losing ground in its race to stay in a dominant position in an increasingly competitive world. The report was fast-tracked and delivered in October 2005 after just six months of preparation, drawing on dozens of previous reports on the subject. It concluded that the U.S. was indeed at risk of losing its leadership role and recommended actions in three key areas: increasing research investment in the physical sciences; strengthening science, technology, engineering and mathematics education; and developing a more robust innovation infrastructure.

Balancing these interests is a political calculus, not a scientific one. in developing it, scientific information is sometimes pivotal, sometimes sits on the sidelines, and sometimes ends up as a mix where compromise may or may not embrace a technical truth.

The report caught the attention of both the scientific community, which used it as a rallying point to advocate for increased funding, and the policy-making community who saw its clear statements about the threats the country faced if the current trends were not reversed. Policymakers were quick to draft responses to the document. The White House introduced a new presidential initiative called the American Competitiveness Initiative, modeled on some of the key recommendations of the Gathering Storm report, including doubling the research budgets of NSF, NIST, and DOE Office of Science over 10 years. The House Democratic leadership proposed an Innovation Agenda that echoed the report’s recommendations. By mid-2006, legislation designed to enact the report’s recommendations began to appear. Ultimately, these responses would coalesce into new legislation called the COMPETES Act that garnered unanimous approval in the Senate and overwhelming support in the House.

But this act merely laid out funding goals. Congress and the president still had to fund the various agencies as part of the annual appropriations process. The groundswell of support that was motivated by a clear and compelling rationale provided by the Gathering Storm report and the dozens of reports that had preceded it made it appear that Congress and the president would deliver on these promises. And, for most of the process, that was indeed the case. At every milestone during the FY 2008 funding cycle, the increases for NSF, NIST and DOE Office of Science were at or, in some cases, higher than the levels called for in the COMPETES Act. However, at the 11th hour, politics trumped the goals of the COMPETES Act.

The president and Republicans in Congress decided it was in their interest to constrain spending while Democrats wanted to increase spending for many of their priorities. Because of this fight between the president and the Democratic leadership—a fight the Democrats would ultimately lose because they could not override the president’s veto—all non-defense spending, including all the science funding called for in COMPETES, was rolled into one giant omnibus spending bill. In order to get the funding levels to a level the president would sign, the Democratic leadership had to pick and choose which programs to grant priority and which to abandon. In need of a political victory in the wake of the defeat on the spending level, the Democratic leadership emphasized priorities with which they could draw the sharpest distinctions between their view and the president’s. Unfortunately for the science community, that did not include a priority for science funding (for which, after all, the president shared priority). And so, despite having a strong case buttressed by numerous science advisory bodies and widespread support among policymakers, funding for those three key science agencies actually decreased in FY 2008 relative to inflation.

It is difficult to predict what factors will motivate specific policy debates because the political system is ever changing.

Our point is not to disparage those who would strive to ensure Congress and the administration act on strong technical and scientific grounds when crafting policy. Indeed, that is what both of our organizations ask us to do in Washington, D.C. Rather, it is to temper the inevitable frustration that has and will occur when Congress appears to act irrationally in its science and technology policy as it seeks to balance competing interests. As long as the current political incentives are in place, reviving OTA won’t suddenly make Congress appear a great deal smarter about technology.

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    a. C. Mooney, "Requiem for an Office." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, (Sept./Oct. 2005).

    b. W. O'Leary, "Congress's Science Agency Prepares to Close its Doors." New York Times, (Sept. 24, 1995), 26.

    c. Remarks before the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, The National Academies, Oct. 6, 2005 (see www.cra.org/govaffairs/blog/archives/000419.html).

    d. See http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/14/newt-gingrich-answers-your-questions/.

    e. J. Peha, "The Growing Debate Over Science and Technology Advice for Congress." Commun. ACM 44, 12 (Dec. 2001), 29.

    DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1378727.1378738

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