The big picture: Almost every aspect of how modern society operates involves science and technology in one way or another, but often policy decisions are guided by lobbyists and special-interest groups whose motive is profit over public good. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is seeking to change that by reinstating the Office of Technology Assessment.
Between 1972 and 1995, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) provided Congress with independent and expert advice to guide policy decision-making on topics that involved complex scientific and technological matters. After it was defunded by Republicans in 1995, Congress had no independent body to call upon for guidance when putting together technical legislation, and the vacuum it left was quickly filled by lobbyists and special-interest groups.
As part of her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Elizabeth Warren has announced that she will seek to reinstate the OTA to ensure lawmakers have an impartial source of expertise to drawn on when drafting legislation fit for the modern era.
In a statement, Senator Warren explains that, “Members of Congress invariably will come from a variety of backgrounds -- and that’s a good thing. But we are increasingly asking them to climb steep learning curves on these technical subjects.” Those subjects being things like climate change, encryption and social media.
In some ways, the argument for the OTA writes itself. The disconnect between average scientific literacy and the level our most advanced technologies have reached means that even top legislators don’t really understand the things they’re regulating. Just think about some of the cringeworthy questions posed to Mark Zuckerberg during his Senate hearings in 2018.
Indeed, most people don’t really understand how their own smartphones work, let alone the complexities of automation, machine learning or climatology.
Senator Warren explains that to avoid the kind of partisan deadlock often seen in Congress, “the new OTA should be led by a single, independent director,” and should also have “the authority to self-commission reports” so as not to be politically driven by one party’s agenda.
Knowing one’s limits is a good thing, and regardless of one’s political orientation, it seems hard to argue against having a reliable source of expert advice to draw on during policy-making.
Image credit: Craig F. Walker, Getty Images.