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Without Agency: Why Congress Can’t Do Science

Reprinted by permission of The New Republic, (Issue date: 05/03/04).

Last May, Congress brushed up on its physics and debated whether to proceed with research on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), a nuclear bomb intended to penetrate the earth before detonating, thus enhancing the military’s ability to destroy buried bunkers. The administration was pushing hard for the weapon, which it claimed could destroy rogue-state weapons of mass destruction hidden underground, and it enjoyed strong support from congressional Republicans. Democrats, however, firmly opposed building any new nuclear weapons.

Taking to the Senate floor, Democrats Richard Durbin and Carl Levin engaged in a strange, faux-scientific exchange purporting to illustrate how the new RNEP might kill ten million people with one blast. In truth, they badly overstated the impact of the explosion while completely ignoring the effect of deadly radioactive fallout. Republican Senator Jon Kyl, by contrast, argued for the RNEP, declaring, “If you get deep enough underground with enough concrete and steel above your head, [existing U.S. bombs] can’t get you. … There is only one way to get [such targets], and that is through a precise, low-yield nuclear weapon.” Yet, in actuality, very deep bunkers would be impervious not only to low-yield bombs, but also to bigger bombs. In other words, both sides of the nation’s chief deliberative body were woefully misinformed about a key security question.

Yet it’s difficult to blame members of Congress for making such unfounded claims. Congress, after all, has no source of information it can turn to for objective technical analysis—there is no equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for arbitrating scientific disputes. As a result, to learn about new nuclear weapons, Democrats turned to nongovernmental organizations, such as the Federation of American Scientists (where I once worked on this issue) and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and to academic scientists, who typically support arms control initiatives. Republicans, by contrast, largely depended on anti-arms-control think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the National Institute for Public Policy, along with scientists from the Department of Energy’s laboratories, where jobs depend on nuclear weapons funding. Such interest groups, unsurprisingly, are often tainted by politics, and, even when their analyses are objective, they carry the perception of bias, making it difficult for them to mediate partisan squabbles.

With each side working from different sets of scientific facts in so many political fights—from stem cells to climate change to nuclear arms—politicians are increasingly talking past each other. Science should provide a reality check on partisan debate. But, for that, Congress needs its own agency dedicated to technical analysis.

There used to be just such an agency. Established in 1972, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was charged with assessing the potential of technology both to endanger and to enhance American interests. But it was abolished during the Gingrich revolution, when the new House majority decided that cutting the size of government, a key promise in the Contract with America, meant killing one of Congress’s support offices. The OTA, small and lacking a large political constituency, was an easy target. Moreover, conservative lawmakers argued at the time that Congress’s other support agencies—the CBO, the General Accounting Office (GAO), and the Congressional Research Service (CRS)—together with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), could easily fill the void.

But they can’t. The CBO focuses on economic and budget decisions, only venturing peripherally into technical territory. The GAO’s statutory focus is on auditing and reviewing existing federal programs; a scientific advisory agency, though, should be able to assess future options—like earth-penetrating nukes or emerging sensor technologies for homeland security. The GAO is ill-suited to do that.

CRS is a better candidate for producing scientific and technical analysis, but it is still insufficient. CRS reports are proprietary and private—to access most studies, an outsider needs to know either a CRS analyst or a congressional staffer; thus, CRS’s capability for scientific analysis doesn’t help build a common foundation of public knowledge upon which legislation can be judged. More important, strict, blind peer reviews—the hallmark of scientific analyses—are not part of the CRS process and would be difficult to integrate into its rapid-response culture. In fact, CRS did release a sound report before the May debate on earth-penetrating nuclear weapons, but its technical assessment was limited to one page, and that page merely summarized others’ previously published conclusions.

The NAS, by contrast, generates detailed, peer-reviewed, policy-relevant studies, developed individually and endorsed by some of America’s most eminent scientists, leading many to back it as the right institution to fill Congress’s needs. Indeed, since the OTA closed in 1995, the NAS has picked up some of the slack, and none other than Newt Gingrich has suggested that “Congress should contract with the National Academy of Sciences for paid analysis and advice.” But, again, there are severe problems. NAS studies are notoriously slow and frequently delivered too late to have any real impact on public policy. (Foreseeing the controversy over bunker-busting nukes, Congress called for a comprehensive NAS study of the subject in 2002, but its participants didn’t even meet until February 2004.)

Moreover, the intuitive expectation that America’s best scientists will produce the best studies is often wrong. Rather, the ability to apply science to policy options is typically a skill best practiced by the sort of experts, trained at the intersection of science and policy, who would staff a dedicated science advisory agency—and who would be, if necessary, able to turn to NAS members for advice. Compounding the problems, the NAS cannot be a dedicated congressional agency: In 2002, it received $181 million from executive-branch agencies, and any congressional contracts would total only a small fraction of that amount. To date, even the NAS studies explicitly requested by Congress have typically been funded by executive-branch agencies, and, according to one senior NAS official, occasionally those agencies have used their leverage to derail potentially damaging reports.

Even when technical issues are not ensnared in partisan bickering, Congress’s lack of scientific strength can undermine its effectiveness. Take the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and, more specifically, its Science and Technology Directorate. That Directorate spends over $1 billion each year on everything from detecting nuclear weapons to crop protection to biometrics. To govern responsibly, Congress must understand all these issues. But it has few resources to rely on. CRS has produced broad reports covering the full sweep of DHS science and technology activities, but it has never ventured into technically challenging waters. The GAO has been the most impressive, producing sophisticated studies on risk analysis, interoperable communications, information sharing, and other technical matters; yet its work addresses only existing—and not potential—programs. The CBO has yet to issue a report related to the DHS.

This lack of technical muscle showed itself February 25 when the House Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Science, and Research & Development held a hearing on next year’s budget with Charles McQueary, the DHS undersecretary for science and technology—possibly the only such hearing this year. McQueary’s purview spans a host of important issues, such as bio-surveillance, detection of suicide bombers, and wireless communications, and the committee might have been expected to delve deeply into several of those. Yet the most probing questions came on cybersecurity, though it accounts for less than 2 percent of the proposed DHS research budget.

Why? In a telling aside, Texas Republican Kay Granger informed the witness that, “some of us attended the National Defense University Tuesday morning for an exercise on cybersecurity, which is probably why you’re getting these questions [on cybersecurity].” If Congress had the resources to seriously investigate homeland security science and technology, the hearing would never have spent so much time on questions raised by a single, marginally related seminar—it would have focused on research generated by Congress itself. All the talk of cybersecurity was a sign of a vacuum in Congress, which lacked in-depth understanding of the other 98 percent of McQueary’s purview.

Some members of Congress have responded to these problems by trying to revive the OTA. That would be a mistake given the partisan acrimony that accompanied the agency’s demise. As former House Speaker Gingrich, who led the effort to abolish the OTA, has argued, “Those of us who were conservative Republicans felt that the OTA was used by liberals to cover up political ideology with a gloss of science.” Representative Rush Holt, a highly respected physicist who is leading the OTA-renewal push, countered in Wired magazine in late 2002 that “GOP House leaders are simply afraid of unbiased scientific analysis that might conflict with their political agendas.”

It’s exactly this kind of bickering that a new institution could circumvent. The cost would not be great. A new office for science and technology analysis could likely be funded for about $20 million annually, roughly the OTA’s level of funding before its abolition. By contrast, the Bush administration requested $101 million this year for CRS, $35 million for the CBO, and $487 million for the GAO, a total of $623 million. Just the combined increase in the CRS, CBO, and GAO budgets between 2004 and 2005 is $32 million, over 50 percent greater than the cost of a new agency. Moreover, by consolidating scientists now dispersed throughout Congress’s various support agencies into one institution, Congress could make much more efficient use of the talent at its disposal.

In the summer of 2002, in one of its few changes to President Bush’s proposal for a new Department of Homeland Security, Congress established the undersecretary of homeland security for science and technology. Members from both parties recognized that America’s future security will rely on the judicious application of new technologies—from radiation detectors to biometric scanners—and that the new federal agency would need a unit dedicated to assessing science and technology. Congress has had the good sense to consistently equip the executive branch with the scientific capabilities it needs to meet its responsibilities. It ought to do the same for itself.

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