Sunday, October 07, 2018

A modest proposal: Congressional Science and Technology Office, or equivalent

I was in a meeting at the beginning of the week where the topic of science and technology in policy-making came up.  One person in the meeting made an off-hand comment that one role for university practitioners could be to "educate policy-makers".  Another person in the meeting, with a lot of experience in public policy, pointed out that from the perspective of policy-makers, the previous statement often comes across as condescending and an immediate turn-off (regardless of whether policy-makers actually have expert knowledge relevant to their decisions).  

At the same time, with the seemingly ever-quickening pace of technological change, it sure seems like Congress lacks sources of information and resources for getting legislators (and perhaps more importantly their staffs) up to speed on scientific and technological issues.  These include issues of climate, election security, artificial intelligence, robots coming to take our jobs, etc.  The same could be said for the Judiciary, from the federal district level all the way up to the Supreme Court.   Wouldn't it be a good idea for at least the staffs of the federal judges to have some non-partisan way to get needed help in understanding, e.g., encryption?   The National Academies do outstanding work in their studies and reports, but I'm thinking of a non-partisan information-gathering and coaching office specifically to support Congress and perhaps the Judiciary.  The Congressional Budget Office serves a somewhat similar role in terms of supporting budgeting and appropriations.  The executive branch (nominally) has the Office of Science and Technology Policy.   I could be convinced that the Academies could launch something analogous, but it's not clear that this is a reasonable expectation.

Realistically, now is not the best time to bring this up in the US, given the level of political dysfunction and the looming financial challenges facing the government.   There used to be a congressional Office of Technology Assessment, but that was shut down ostensibly to save money in 1995.  Attempts to restart it such as Bill Foster's this past spring have failed.  Still, better to keep pushing for something to play this role, rather than simply being content with the status quo level of technical knowledge of Congress (and federal judges).  Complex scientific and technological issues are shaping the world around us, and I have to hope that decision-makers want to know more about these topics.

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