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Building Science and Technology Capacity in Government
By
Volume 45, Number 5 - September/October 2021

When members of Congress and their staffs are smarter—particularly about science and technology (S&T)—they can write better legislation. Discussions in the U.S. about efforts to modernize Congress have shifted from whether there is a need to build capacity within Congress to deal intelligently with the scientific discoveries and applications of technology to which entity might support this effort and how. There are various options, including these:

  • Bolstering the capabilities of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which currently examines all sides of an issue and assesses the impact of proposed policies
  • Mobilizing the new team of futurists at the General Accountability Office (GAO) in its Center for Strategic Foresight along with the new Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics (STAA) group
  • Reconstituting the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) that was eliminated in 1995

 Each approach has its share of supporters and detractors ready to share the pros and cons of all the options under consideration. What’s missing from the equation is the recognition that the only way forward is through cooperation and coordination across all agencies that support Congress.

Having a degree in law or business, as most in Congress do, is not the best preparation for making decisions concerning S&T. As Frans Brom, secretary of the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy, argues in his Jan. 13, 2020, blog post: “For science to influence public policy, more is needed than simple factual evidence. It is necessary to understand contexts, stakeholder perceptions, the norms and values at stake and the hopes and fears surrounding the issue at hand” (blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/01/13/for-the-humanities-to-play-a-stronger-role-in-public-policy-making-they-must-move-from-individual-to-institutional-engagement).

The NAPA Report

A report from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA; napawash.org/uploads/Academy_Studies/NAPA_FinalReport_forCRS_110119.pdf) details resources currently available to members of Congress, assesses the potential need within the legislative branch to create a separate entity for providing nonpartisan advice on S&T issues, and addresses whether this new office would duplicate services already available from CRS or GAO.

Rather than reviving the OTA, as suggested by Ralph Nader (nader.org/2020/08/03/ralph-nader-and-colleagues-call-on-speaker-pelosi-to-revive-the-office-of-technology-assessment), the NAPA report recommends that Congress leverage the work currently performed at CRS and GAO. With additional resources, CRS could offer advice to members of Congress concerning S&T issues in a timely fashion, while GAO’s technology assessment program would provide probing analyses. However, it’s questionable whether GAO or CRS could provide the kind of service that the OTA offered Congress in the past.

The report recommends that a new Office of the Congressional Science and Technology Advisor (OCSTA) be established to help in hiring advisors for congressional committees with oversight of S&T issues, as well as a council to coordinate existing S&T expertise within and outside the government. Precisely how (and whether) an additional layer of bureaucracy would work needs to be explored (by more studies, no doubt).

  • The report mentions the need for several products and services:
  • Quick-turnaround support, offered through CRS
  • Opportunities for members/staffs to interact with S&T experts from academia, industry, and not-for-profits (networking)
  • Experts available for consultation to members of Congress (and their staffs)
  • Short-to-medium-term studies and analyses of S&T trends
  • Detailed research into the impact of these trends that would be peer-reviewed by outside experts
  • Horizon scans to identify S&T technology trends, opportunities, and issues

 To help Congress decide where to focus, an initial baseline study could determine the most pressing S&T issues for the nation in the short-term and the emerging technology developments to watch. Objections to surveying Congress appear centered on who will conduct the survey rather than whether this is the correct first step. Multiple competitiveness and future studies are conducted each year by all sorts of entities listing the “top 10” S&T issues facing the nation or emerging technologies about to “pop.” These might serve as starting points.

Identification of the most appropriate researchers investigating each topic nationwide could be undertaken by any new entity created in Congress so that all members have access to those closest to the concerns of their constituents.

In concluding that a $1–$2 million boost to CRS and GAO would be sufficient, NAPA is seriously underestimating the costs associated with these recommendations. The GAO itself has estimated that it will need $15 million to expand its new STAA capacity.

The Belfer Center REPORT

“Building a 21st Century Congress: Improving Congress’s Science and Technology Expertise” (belfercenter.org/publication/building-21st-century-congress-improving-congresss-science-and-technology-expertise), issued by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, analyzes how best to close the S&T knowledge gap in Congress. Based on more than 140 interviews with current and former members of Congress, their staffs, lobbyists, civil-society groups, and think-tank experts, recommendations are remarkably similar to those contained in the NAPA report.

The report notes that there is no dearth of technical information available to Congress, but it’s not always precisely what is needed. Also, members and their staffs lack the expertise required to digest and comprehend this information in time to make policy decisions. Recommendations for the near-term include determining whether GAO has the capacity to accomplish what is necessary or if the OTA should be reconstituted. In the long-term, the report recommends increasing staff capacity as well as providing access to subject matter experts (SMEs).

The Ash Center Report

Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation (ash.harvard.edu) recommends that GAO’s STAA group be supplemented with another office that some are calling the Technology Assessment Service (TAS). STAA could concentrate on GAO’s strengths—assessing federal R&D spending and acquisitions of emerging technologies, for example—while TAS could provide “advice on regulating the private sector’s use of new technology” (fedscoop.com/congress-tech-assessement-paper-daniel-schuman-zach-graves).

TAS would focus on non-technical aspects of employing new technologies, including ethics. After analyzing the approaches of other countries, TAS should incorporate “best practices.” As with the other studies, the Ash Center recommends that new technology assessments be accessible to all members—not just the committee chairs and leadership—and that the assessments be produced in time frames that serve Congress’s schedule. It also recognizes that Congress needs additional S&T policy staff positions, not only in members’ offices, but at the committee level as well.


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Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management (IRM) consultant located in the metro Washington, DC area.

 

Comments? Email the editor-in-chief: marydee@xmission.com

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