Science & Tech

Congress Must Reassert Its Role in Science and Technology Policy

(gorodenkoff/Getty Images)
The decisions facing us today are too important to leave to executive agencies.

Science and technology are transforming the ways we communicate, travel, produce goods and services, conduct warfare, and protect our health. Yet our elected officials and government institutions seem surprisingly ill-equipped to understand, much less address, the many challenges and opportunities posed by modern science and technology, from artificial intelligence and climate change to pandemics and digital disinformation.

Earlier this year, Congress held a hearing to consider ways of addressing the “brain drain” in the federal scientific workforce. Calls like this to equip government with more and better expertise are a response to the gap between our elected officials’ technical capacity and the importance of science and technology for society as a whole. Closing this gap is more important now than ever, as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and try to assess what went wrong in the government’s handling of it and how to prepare for the next large-scale threat.

President Biden has taken note, making science and technology policy a top priority of his administration. To this end, the White House has elevated the Office of Science and Technology Policy to a cabinet-level position, launched a new “scientific integrity task force,” and called for large increases in federal research and development (R&D) funding.

Congress, too, has made science and technology a top priority, calling for over $100 billion in R&D funding in an effort to secure American global leadership. Yet Congress has done little, if anything, to address its own “brain drain.” The decline of technical expertise in our government is inseparable from another worrisome trend: a weakening of congressional capacity that has left Congress ineffective, not only lagging behind the private sector but also overly deferential to executive agencies.

Executive agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration, play a pivotal role in science and technology policy, especially when it comes to such issues as environmental and drug regulation or pandemic preparedness and response. And while these agencies may well need more expertise to do their jobs effectively, the Constitution empowers Congress — the most democratic branch of our federal government — to make laws and to oversee the executive agencies to which it delegates such power.

For instance, it is Congress’s job to determine what went wrong in the government’s pandemic response and how to prevent such mistakes in the future. Yet conducting this kind of oversight requires expertise, not only in the relevant policy and legal domains but also in technical fields such as epidemiology, virology, genomics, and public health. Unfortunately, however, Congress has a dearth of such expertise, since it has depleted its own sources of technical knowledge over the years. Emblematic of such self-inflicted incapacity was Congress’s decision in 1995 to close the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

The OTA was a congressional agency designed to supply Congress with an independent source of science and technology expertise. It was created in 1972 in response to concerns much like those of today — about the impacts of science and technology, Congress’s inability to grapple with them, and the growth of the executive branch. The agency operated from 1974 to 1995, when it was shuttered by congressional Republicans in an effort to shrink the federal government. Ironically, the result was not smaller government, but a Congress less capable of overseeing executive agencies and keeping them in line.

There were two principal motivations for Congress’s decision to create the OTA. First, World War II had transformed the public role of science and technology. During the war, the federal government had begun to make substantial investments in, and to exert considerable control over, science and technology — most famously with the Manhattan Project. After the war, the government played an increasingly active role, with a view to stimulating technological innovation, especially in the face of fierce competition with Russia. By the 1950s, the federal government was by far the biggest funder of U.S. R&D.

Yet, as the government became more involved with science and technology, the executive branch took the lead. Besides footing the (considerable) bill for federal R&D, Congress played little more than a perfunctory role in science and technology policy. Not only had Congress ceded science and technology policy to the executive branch, it also found itself without the technical expertise needed for oversight of the executive branch in these increasingly important areas.

This state of affairs contrasted starkly with the executive branch, in which scientific experts had come to play a decisive role, epitomized by Vannevar Bush, President Roosevelt’s science adviser and director of the government’s wartime research. After World War II, the role of the presidential science adviser grew in prominence with the creation of the president’s Science Advisory Committee in 1957, later renamed the Office of Science and Technology and eventually succeeded by the Office of Science and Technology Policy — the department recently elevated by the Biden administration.

Second, although science and technology had helped win the war and spur a post-war economic boom, this period saw increasing anxiety over the pace and effects of scientific and technological change. Along with a general “social consciousness” of the unintended effects of technology, there were specific fears about technology’s ecological impacts. Other public concerns related to nuclear power, the arms race, and the alliance of technological development and the military, as exacerbated by the Vietnam War. Despite prominent successes, such as the Apollo program, science was seen by a growing chorus of critics no longer as a servant of the public weal but as a handmaiden of the so-called military-industrial complex.

These two consequences of the post-war science-and-technology paradigm — the dominance of the executive branch and what we might call, for lack of a better term, a “techlash” — went hand in glove. The executive branch was seen to be complicit in the dominance of technology, while Congress, which was in theory more responsive to popular pressures, appeared unable to do anything about it.

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.


The Latest