Thursday, July 06, 2017

Science and policy-making in the US

Over twenty years ago, Congress de-funded its Office of Technology Assessment, which was meant to be a non-partisan group (somewhat analogous to the Congressional Budget Office) that was to help inform congressional decision-making on matters related to technology and public policy.  The argument at the time of the de-funding was that it was duplicative - that there are other federal agencies (e.g., DOE, NSF, NIH, EPA, NOAA) and bodies (the National Academies) that are capable of providing information and guidance to Congress.   In addition, there are think-tanks like the Rand CorporationIDA, and MITRE, though those groups need direction and a "customer" for their studies.   Throughout this period, the executive branch at least had the Office of Science and Technology Policy, headed by the Presidential Science Advisor, to help in formulating policy.  The level of influence of OSTP and the science advisor waxed and waned depending on the administration.   Science is certainly not the only component of technology-related policy, nor even the dominant one, but for the last forty years (OSTP's existence) and arguably going back to Vannevar Bush, there has been broad bipartisan agreement that science should at least factor into relevant decisions.

We are now in a new "waning" limit, where all of the key staff offices at OSTP are vacant, and there seems to be no plan or timeline to fill them.     The argument from the administration, articulated in here, is that OSTP was redundant and that its existence is not required for science to have a voice in policy-making within the executive branch.   While that is technically true, in the sense that the White House can always call up anyone they want and ask for advice, removing science's official seat at the table feels like a big step.  As I've mentioned before, some things are hard to un-do.   Wiping out OSTP for at least the next 3.5 years would send a strong message, as does gutting the science boards of agencies.   There will be long-term effects, both in actual policy-making, and in continuity of knowledge and the pipeline of scientists and engineers interested in and willing to devote time to this kind of public service.   (Note that there is a claim from an unnamed source that there will be a new OSTP director, though there is no timeline.)


Anonymous said...

To be completely honest, I'm not sure how many self-respecting scientists would want to serve as policy advisors for this particular administration in the first place.

Douglas Natelson said...

That's a tough question, too. We could go farther: is it better for the positions to remain vacant than for them to be given to, e.g., big dollar campaign donors or media figures with no background in science?