It's hard to think when you're not used to it.
For better than 30 years, the Republican party has consistently misused and abused science and scientific knowledge for the purpose of advancing the social agenda of party conservatives, and promoting the economic agenda of its large corporate supporters. That’s not to say that Democrats have not also abused science as well, but the Republicans have, without any doubt, blazed new trails in twisting science to meet to needs of key corporate, industrial, and religious supporters.
While science has been something of a plaything for Republicans for years, it is interesting that in 1972, during the Nixon years, Congress created a non-partisan scientific consultancy, called the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) that was mandated to assist Congress with understanding
the complex and highly technical issues that increasingly affect our society [ref]
The OTA served for almost a quarter of a century, providing Congress with unbiased scientific advice on a broad variety of topics. It wasn’t always so, however. There was valid criticism early that the OTA was too allied with liberal ideals. So the OTA restructured itself, as Bruce Bimber of UCSD notes in his interesting essay, The Death of an Agency:
After having experimented with other approaches to securing a stable market for its work, the agency adopted a concrete strategy of neutrality that involved balanced solicitousness of Republican and Democratic interests. The agency severed ties between its staff and legislators’ offices, avoided making specific recommendations or endorsing policy alternatives, began consulting with Republican legislators at the very beginning of its studies, soliciting their input and interests, and employing balanced expert review panels comprised of various groups and organizations with an interest in the issues under study.
The strategy of neutrality, which in various forms the other three congressional agencies were also pursuing, paid off very early, silencing criticism by the mid-1980s and earning the agency allies among Republican ranking minority members in the House and Republican committee chairs in the Senate. [ref]
As a result of the conservative sweep of Congress in 1994, Newt Gingrich came to power. With that power, Gingrich Republicans needed a symbol of their willingness to keep their “Contract With America”, and thus closed the OTA in 1995. The principal reason given for the closure of the OTA was to reduce the size of the federal budget, although with an annual budget of about $2 Billion, it’s difficult to see how cutting the OTA really saved any money. Of course, conservatives had a special hate for the OTA. It turns out that it’s more difficult abuse science and scientific knowledge for political or ideological gain when the Congress has access to its own, non-partisan, scientific analysis and advice. OTA reports about Acid Rain, Global Warming, Food Safety, and Automobile Pollution for example, provided the Congress with even-handed scientific information that potentially threatened the bottom line for some large energy, agri-business, and manufacturing concerns. In order to leverage science to the best interest of its conservative supporters, Gingrich Republicans couldn’t allow dispassionate, objective scientific advice to be widely available to members of Congress. It had to be their science.
As a direct result of the closing of the OTA, Congress has largely relied on partisan think-tanks to provide scientific analysis and policy decision making. Indeed, this was predicted in an October, 2005 article that appeared in Science News, Bruce Bimber was quoted, saying:
“Congress will have to increase its reliance on people with a stake in the outcome. And that’s bad news.”
Bad news indeed. Congress now has to wade through politically-motivated, think-tank-driven, fringe science in order to make policy decisions. Gone are the days of objectivity and consensus. Instead, we now have a virtual industry of well paid science “advisers” from both the left and the right that must battle it out, mano a mano, to be heard in either the Senate and House chambers. As you might expect, the winner is usually the scientists with the deepest pockets and the most connections. I bet you can also guess who the losers are.
I believe that we should reinstate the OTA. I’m not the first to say this, but I’m in decent company. Ralph Nader said it in 2004,
It is time to reinstate the Enlightenment for a Congress besieged as never before with decisions regarding genetic engineering, missile defense, privacy, citizen surveillance, nanotechnology, stagnant automotive technology, global warming and many other perils and promises. [ref]
In a recent post on the Bulletin Online, Laura Kahn echoes Nader’s call, and puts it as well as anyone could:
In contrast, OTA looked at science and technology from a broader societal context. It investigated the potenial unforeseen social, economic, and environmental consequences of a technology’s widespread implementation and communicated its findings in language carefully tuned to congressional audiences. OTA used a process in which committees of science and technology experts served as advisers rather than as the report’s authors. (NAS does not separate the two responsibilities.) OTA reports did not make specific consensus policy recommendations, but rather, sought the views of all the important stakeholders and then explained the possible consequences of alternative courses of action to help inform congressional debate.
This type of information is critical for Congress to responsibly implement and oversee policies dealing with alternative energy sources, biodefense research, and other complex issues. OTA would provide Congress the broad perspective needed to write the best possible legislation. Given our current domestic and global mess, we need all the help we can get.[ref]
To read any or all of the OTA Reports, check out http://www.wws.princeton.edu/ota.
I spend much of my time trying to understand people, and why some of us are such freaks. OK why you are the freaks.
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