The OTA was designed to help Congress legislate more effectively in these technical policy areas and to hold accountable the executive-branch agencies charged with science and technology policy-making. What early advocates of technology assessment envisioned was not merely an advisory body that would outfit Congress with more technical information. More than this, the goal was to enable Congress to fulfill its constitutional role as a venue for democratic deliberation — especially given the increasingly complex challenges and opportunities posed by science and technology.
Today, as in the mid 20th century, there is a bipartisan push to secure America’s lead in science and technology in response to foreign competition. And, once again, the executive branch is taking the lead, with Congress doing little more than authorizing funds. At the same time, there are mounting popular concerns about the place of science and technology in our society, whether it is with climate change, the global pandemic, digital disinformation, or Big Tech. And yet our national legislature is less equipped to deal with such issues now than ever before.
The problem is not simply that Congress lacks adequate expert information. The problem is that Congress has forfeited its role as a deliberative and democratically responsive institution within which to grapple with the social, ethical, economic, and political ramifications of modern science and technology. That is unfortunate, since such deliberation is urgently needed now in our age of populist anxiety. This is precisely what technology assessment was originally intended to facilitate — and what a reestablished OTA could help us achieve.
Reviving technology assessment would help Congress fulfill its constitutional role and provide a venue for democratic deliberation about many of the most pressing issues of our time. The White House has signaled that it is serious about science and technology policy. It’s time for Congress to do the same.