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The Growing Debate Over Science and Technology Advice For Congress

In June 2001, about 100 professionals gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss ways to strengthen U.S. Congress's ability to make good decisions on issues involving science and technology.

From a glance at the Microsoft antitrust case, or evolving regulation on broadband Internet access, it is clear that government has a tremendous impact on computing. Often, creating an effective government policy requires answering difficult technical questions. For example, in the Internet age, is it technically practical to protect privacy, to enforce traditional intellectual property rights, or to allow law enforcement to eavesdrop when and only when there is a court order? When Congress bases new laws on false assumptions about what technology can accomplish, disaster is inevitable. Unfortunately, Congress lacks the in-house expertise to answer technical questions.

Given the range of issues addressed, members of Congress and their staff must become generalists to be effective. When specific technical expertise is required, Congress relies on partisan lobbyists who inevitably provide biased information. The way the system is designed, policymakers accept biased versions from all sides, then piece together a cohesive view, and hopefully the best compromise. This works well for many issues, but not with highly technical matters. When one side says it is impossible to block Internet pornography and the other side says it is trivial, with both sides supporting their case with incomprehensible technical jargon, what is a poor generalist to do? The same problem occurs on most issues with significant scientific or technical content, including energy, health care, national defense, agriculture, and the environment. In short, this is a problem with many of the important issues we face as a nation.

Congress has plenty of lawyers and economists on staff to advise it. Should a new organization be created specifically to provide Congress information on science and technology? This question has prompted considerable debate in both scientific and policy circles, unfortunately useful discussion between these two groups is extremely rare, and both are needed to address this issue. An unusual workshop (Workshop on Creating an Institutional Structure to Provide Science and Technology Advice to the U.S. Congress) on Capitol Hill was organized by Carnegie Mellon University and had 18 co-conveners, including the USACM and other prominent professional societies, universities, and think tanks. The workshop was chaired by Granger Morgan, head of CMU's Department of Engineering and Public Policy.

The workshop began with some of Congress's leading voices on scientific and technical issues, who spoke forcefully on the need for better scientific advice in Congress. However, these words of support came with warnings that some of their colleagues might not see the value of nonpartisan technical advice. Congressman Amo Houghton (R-NY) quipped that some members of Congress were unaware they no longer had technologists in a Congressional organization to advise them. Ironically, the members of Congress calling for more scientific information were those already possessing significant knowledge. Perhaps it is because they know enough to understand the limits of their knowledge. This group included Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), whose Ph.D.'s in physics make them the only members with advanced degrees in science or engineering. Houghton (R-NY) and Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) have been leaders on numerous issues involving science or technology. Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Ted Stevens (R-AK) also sent emissaries with words of support. For members of Congress who are less attuned to scientific and technical issues, it may take some letters and phone calls from the voters back home to demonstrate the importance of sound nonpartisan technical information. After all, members of Congress represent voters, and members rarely act on issues in which voters are silent. As a result, individuals can play a major role on these issues.

There was general agreement at the workshop that Congress does need a group of advisors working directly under Congressional control.

There was general agreement at the workshop that Congress does need a group of advisors working directly under Congressional control. The executive branch has countless experts to turn to, from the President's Science Advisor to the career specialists in the agencies. If Congress is to provide oversight over these agencies, as the U.S. system of checks and balances requires, it must have its own independent experts.

If a new organization is created to advise Congress, that organization could take many forms, with different ways of reaching out to technologists. In this workshop, five different models were proposed. One possibility is to create a standalone organization consisting of experts from many technical disciplines who would serve Congress directly. Another possibility (which I proposed) is to create a small congressional organization with a highly skilled staff that understands both the needs of Congress and the scientific community. This small staff would contract out most of the actual analysis to carefully selected nonprofit organizations. For example, computer scientists at a top university might assess the dangers of information warfare, while staff of this organization oversee to insure the final report is useful (and comprehensible) in Congress. The latter approach would allow Congress to tap the considerable skills of technical professionals working outside of government, although greater care is needed with this approach to ensure reports remain unbiased and nonpartisan. A third proposal took this a step further, by shifting the entire function to a nonprofit organization outside of Congress.

Instead of creating a new organization, others proposed that these functions be implanted in existing organizations that serve Congress, such as the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, or the General Accounting Office, or that it be added to the national academies. The latter may offer members of the National Academy of Engineering new opportunities to convey information to Congress. These proposals have the advantage of building on an organization that is already successful in its current mission, and the disadvantage that comes from preserving the old mission while adding a new and distinctly different mission.

Workshop participants also debated another question of interest in both technical and policy communities: Does Congress need greater assistance addressing today's technical issues, or looking forward to tomorrow's? Some argue that members of Congress need better information on the bills they will vote on this year. Others would like to see nonpartisan researchers frame future debates much earlier. For example, how will today's genetic research affect privacy five years from now, and what options could Congress begin to consider in the meantime? (Personally, I believe a new organization should address a combination of today's issues and tomorrow's issues.)

Since the June workshop, there has been a great deal of activity in Congress. First, Congressman Holt introduced a bill that would fund an independent stand-alone Office of Technology Assessment at $20 million per year to advise Congress. The bill has dozens of sponsors so far. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill that would create a one-year pilot under the auspices of an existing Congressional organization—the General Accounting Office. Congress passed legislation allocating $5,000 to fund this one-year pilot. It is a significant first step. However, the real test will come next year. Will Congress increase the funding to something comparable to the Holt bill? Will they continue the program under the current model (within the General Accounting Office)? Will they allow the program to continue in a different model? Or will they terminate the project entirely?

Arguments made in this workshop about the ideal form and purpose of a new organization will continue among both policymakers and technologists. There are pros and cons to each option, and reasonable minds can differ. However, the first and more important question is whether something ought to be done. Is this nation satisfied that lawmakers turn primarily to lobbyists for help with matters involving science and technology? Many citizens have expressed concern about the influence of money in politics; an imbalance of information can be every bit as corrupting. Things are unlikely to change unless voters, especially those with scientific and technical expertise, express their opinions.

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1. Peha, J.M. Bridging the divide between technologists and policymakers. IEEE Spectrum 38, 3 (Mar. 2001), 15–17.

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Jon M. Peha ( is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA.

©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/1200  $5.00

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