Nov 20, 2019

Congress is Behind the Times: It’s Time to Close the Science & Tech Gap

It’s no surprise that Congress is behind the times on being technology savvy. The infamous, viral footage of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress full of awkward pauses revealed some members’ lack of tech knowledge. Among the highlights: One senator asking how Facebook sustains a business model without charging a user fee (the answer is ads); another confused by how app sign-ins work.

From artificial intelligence to biotech to digital privacy, America faces a breadth of complex science and technology issues. As these capabilities continue to evolve, Congress lacks the basic resources, support, and understanding it needs to determine how to craft well-informed policy decisions on these critical issues which impact many different segments of our life. Enhancing Congress’s scientific and technological capacity would provide lawmakers a much more informed basis of understanding they need to develop policies. Why does this matter? This work can help save taxpayer dollars and provide non-partisan assessments that can better educate members on emerging issues shaping the economy.

How do we close the massive science and tech gap in Congress? The Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service will continue to play an important role, but their missions should be expanded.  Reviving and modernizing an office with elements like the original Office of Technology Assessment can help fill those gaps. Over two decades ago, Congress defunded the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a non-partisan office full of experts dedicated to helping guide Congress’s science and technology decision making based on grounded evidence and access to experts. When this office was defunded in 1995, Google still hadn’t been invented and dial-up Internet was the norm. It’s time to bring that experience back to Congress with a revitalized and enhanced focus so that Congress has non-partisan, evidence-based assessments on emerging technologies. Reviving this critical role would increase Congress’s technological literacy and close the gap that exists in its science and technology capabilities.

There’s increasing bipartisan recognition and momentum to address the Legislative Branch’s science and tech capabilities: In its second set of recommendations, the Modernization Committee called for reviving and revitalizing the OTA, and a bipartisan bill was introduced in both the House and the Senate to recreate and clarify the role of this critical office. Just last week, a congressionally-directed report, commissioned last year, identified gaps in science and technology expertise and capacity. The report recommends Congress significantly ramp up its technical expertise on committees, and at support agencies like the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

Stay tuned as this issue continues to gain traction on Capitol Hill, and legislators work to close the science and tech gap in Congress.

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