A New Locus for T.A. in the USA

TA-Institutionen und -Programme

A New Locus for T.A. in the USA

by Vary Coates

As the new Republican majority in Congress moved toward abolishing the Office of Technology Assessment, that agency's professional staff pondered the question of whether their work had indeed become unnecessary and ineffective, or at least, as one Member characterized it in congressional debate, "a luxury the Congress can no longer afford". OTA analysts concluded that the needs that led to the establishment of OTA in 1973 were not only still valid, but increasingly so, because of the centrality of science and technology in American society, and their relevance to nearly all major public policy issues.

The United States and the Congress still need:

_ a source of information for legislators about technology that is independent of lobbyists and independent of bureaucratic programs and Executive branch political agendas;

_ a mechanism to gather in and integrate for legislators the expertise of scientists and industry leaders and the insights of "stakeholders" or those who would be most affected by technological impacts; and

_ a "translator" to facilitate communication between experts, the public, and political leaders.

The Congress did, nevertheless, eliminate OTA through a series of fairly narrow votes. Many observers interpreted this as a result of intense short-term political pressures rather than a considered repudiation of the principles outlined above or of the usefulness of OTA's analyses. Was it therefore desirable, OTA staff members asked themselves, to create an "ark" that could preserve OTA's institutional memory and analytical techniques until the flood abated and Congress might again recognize its need for a dedicated think-tank?

The result of these discussions was the incorporation, just before OTA closed, of an Institute for Technology Assessment (ITA), which some describe as an attempt to "privatize" OTA. The assumption behind ITA appears to some paradoxical - that even if Congress is unwilling to pay for OTA's advice or to directly request and endorse it, yet Congressional deliberations and decisions can be informed and improved by such analysis. However, OTA's direct impact on Congressional Members (more realistically, on their personal aides and committee staffers) was limited and secondary in effectiveness to the feedback to Congress from constituents and the media relying on OTA reports.

The high credibility of OTA reports rested on the breadth of OTA's outreach to experts and stakeholders, the scale and openness of its reiterative review process, and its consistent avoidance of advocacy or partisan positions. This outreach was possible because industry leaders, scientists, and interest groups were willing to give generously of their time and effort to OTA both as an "ear" of the Congress and an ombudsman for the general public interest.

To identify itself as the heir of OTA, therefore, the ITA must maintain some link to Congress; an emphasis on broad outreach to experts; an analytical process that is open and public; and the ability to deliver balanced, objective findings free of advocacy and special pleading. At the same time, ITA has the opportunity to escape some of the limitations that were inherent in OTA's status as a congressional agency. It can function as an "early warning system", anticipating and calling attention to the potential opportunities and problems of emerging technologies before they reach the floor of congress and before they are distorted by the narrow presentations of special interests. ITA could select for attention international or regional (state) issues as well as congressional issues. It could give greater attention to questions faced by business and industry which do not necessarily require or imply government action.

A steering committee and a much larger group of participating ex-OTA analysts have mobilized distinguished advisors and consultants - many of whom served on OTA advisory panels - to help in structuring an organization with the desired characteristics. As currently envisioned, ITA would have a Board of Directors made up of civic and industry leaders concerned about technology, policy, and the public interest, and experienced in institution building and management. A link to congress would be provided by a Board of Advisors that would include both federal and state legislators. Several recent members of OTA's bipartisan governing board of Representatives and Senators have already agreed to serve on such an advisory council.

While the details of ITA's structure and operating charter are still under active discussion, most participants agree on some general principles. The Institute will necessarily begin on a small scale, with a core staff of ex-OTA researchers, supported by OTA alumni and others at universities and other off-site workplaces linked to the Institute by computer networks. ITA will minimize administrative and overhead costs by keeping management as flat and collegial as possible and by taking advantage of facilities and services offered by local universities. It will seek to put together a participating consortium of universities, possibly including some in other countries, from whom visiting faculty and graduate student interns might be drawn to participate in ITA studies.

It is anticipated that core funding for ITA must come from foundations or philanthropic sources at least initially. Funding for specific projects may be accepted from government agencies, scientific societies, state legislators or governmental agencies, industry and trade associations, and corporations, under specified conditions that would include, for example, full public disclosure of funding sources, broad review of draft materials, and full public dissemination of all analytical results. The ITA steering committee is now seeking small planning grants from various foundations or associations to support further planning and development and initial project selection, over a period of six to nine months.

ITA developers recognize that a number of technology assessment organizations in other countries have, for all or part of their lifetime, successfully combined private sector status and funding with legislative advisory functions and/or more general public constituency. We therefore welcome information and advice from such institutions about your experience, especially about the initial stages of development and organization. We also welcome, especially from international organizations, suggestions of projects that might be undertaken and potential sources of funding for such projects. Finally, we ask that ITA be included on organizational mailing lists for newsletters, meeting announcements, and other correspondence related to TA activity.


Dr. Vary Coates (Interim President)
3738 Kanawha Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20015
Tel.: +1 202 363-8523