The demise of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995 in a blaze of partisan acrimony has left Congress bereft of technical expertise. Debates on environmental, defense, and homeland security issues are being carried out largely without the scientific and technical shoring they demand.
Because Congress is having to pass judgment on so many technology-based issues, there is growing awareness within the institution that “it needs some technical backup,” says Michael A. Levi, a 26-year-old science and technology fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The need for an improved technical ability in Congress isn’t about partisan fights,” he argues. “Both parties would benefit from having the technical strength to properly oversee the executive branch.”
To regain that expertise, some like Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), a Ph.D. physicist, have championed the restoration of OTA. Other lawmakers have claimed existing organizations—the General Accounting Office (GAO), the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and even the independent National Academies—can fill the void.
Levi suggests another course: a new institution for science and technology analysis. Such a group would be staffed by people much like Levi, a Princeton University-trained physicist who is a dissertation shy of a Ph.D. He’s been a policy analyst since 2001.