Thursday, April 30, 2009

Reversing the Congressional Science Lobotomy

This is an excellent Op-Ed piece by Congressman Rush Holt, one of the three physicists currently serving in the US House of Representatives. His piece concentrates on the demise of the Office of Technology Assessment, a body of the US Congress that analyze and provide technical and scientific information to the US Congress, and why the US Congress needs it back!

President Obama is not a scientist, yet I am confident that when he makes a policy decision — whether it concerns health care, energy or the economy — he is thinking like a scientist.

I can’t say the same about many of my colleagues in Congress.

Among the 535 members of Congress, there are three physicists, one chemist, six engineers, and one microbiologist. Most members of congress avoid science at all costs, and the handful of trained scientists cannot and do not try to inject the scientific thinking on the particulars of every issue.

What Congress needs is its own science advisors. We need not look far for a model: Until 1995, Congress could rely on the Office of Technology Assessment.

While members of Congress do not suffer from a lack of information, we lack time and resources to assess the validity, credibility, and usefulness of the large amount of scientific information and advice we receive as it affects actual policy decisions. The purpose of the OTA was to assist members of Congress in this task. It both provided an important long-term perspective and alerted Congress to scientific and technological components of policy that might not be obvious.
Despite its importance, new leaders in Congress successfully defunded the OTA in 1995, which as one former member put it, was like Congress giving itself a lobotomy.

It does makes sense that the science, especially the physical science, took a very far back seat in national importance and in funding, during and since that time. It also scary to think that the US Congress wallows in such ignorance about science issues and seems to not want to do anything about it.


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