Remembering Why The Office Of Technology Assessment Was Eliminated

By Republicans, of course. Recent events, such as the Facebook hearing on Capitol Hill, have made it clear that we are governed by those who do not understand technology very well, to put it charitably (boldface mine):

A quartet of tech experts arrived at a little-noticed hearing at the U.S. Capitol in May with a message: Quantum computing is a bleeding-edge technology with the potential to speed up drug research, financial transactions and more.

To Rep. Adam Kinzinger, though, their highly technical testimony might as well have been delivered in a foreign language. “I can understand about 50 percent of the things you say,” the Illinois Republican confessed.

Kinzinger’s quip drew chuckles from his peers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but it also illustrated an unavoidable challenge on Capitol Hill. Increasingly, members of Congress are confronting a wide array of complex policy debates posed by inventions like artificial intelligence and problems like the rise of Russian propaganda online. And policymakers themselves admit they aren’t fully prepared to deal with the issues.

To address that digital knowledge gap, some in Washington are now angling to revive the Capitol’s old science-and-tech think tank, the Office of Technology Assessment, which lawmakers disbanded amid partisan squabbles in the 1990s.

That last phrase, “which lawmakers disbanded amid partisan squabbles in the 1990s” is doing a lot of work–very bad work (boldface mine):

However, regardless of the OTA’s pragmatic style, attention to societal impact, and the international praise lauded on its thorough and accessible reports, the 1980 book Fat City: How Washington Waste Your Taxes argued that the OTA was redundant and unnecessary. This signaled the beginning of its long, politically-charged dirge.

More political unease followed when the OTA released a controversial 1984 report that all but called one of President Reagan’s pet projects — the space-based missile system, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) — a wishful fantasy. This report was followed by two additional studies, released in 1985 and 1988, that were even more in-depth and just as damning. The 1988 report noted that the SDI had a noticeable possibility of ending up as a “catastrophic failure.”

All of this lead up to the OTA’s final death knell in 1995 as it was placed on the Gingrich Republican’s altar of slashed budgets. In a 2005 article from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists titled “Requiem for an Office” [PDF], Chris Mooney describes how defunding the OTA was as much a political performance as it was a way of making room for new, ideology-friendly science advisory roles:

In OTA’s absence, however, the new Republican majority could freely call upon its own favorable scientific “experts” and rely upon more questionable and self-interested analyses prepared by lobbyists, think tanks, and interest groups. A 2001 comment by Gingrich, explaining the reason OTA was killed, pretty much said it all: “We constantly found scientists who thought what they [Republican-aligned think tanks] were saying was not correct.

This wasn’t a partisan squabble. This was a concerted effort by the Republican Party to squelch accurate information that was critical of their favorite policies. Kinda like a ‘Republican War on Science’ or something.

If we don’t ever accurately acknowledge who was at fault for this foolish assault on the Congress’ ability to comprehend the basics of policy, we can never begin to fix what is wrong with, well, everything. This was a Republican failure, and now the rest of us are paying the price for their avarice and stupidity.

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