Office of Technology Assessment

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The U.S. Congress established the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1972, late in the administration of President Richard Nixon (1969–1974). The brainchild of Representative Emilio Q. Daddario, a Connecticut Democrat (1959–1971), the OTA would become, along with the Library of Congress (established 1800) and the Congressional Budget Office (established 1974 one of three federal agencies providing advice directly to Congress rather than to the executive branch of government. Envisioned as an "early warning" mechanism that would alert lawmakers to the unwanted side effects of developing technologies, it also aimed to provide Congress with expertise somewhat analogous to that provided by presidential science advisors since the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933–1945).

Historical Context

The OTA emerged in an era when science and technology were, on the one-hand, undergoing rapid expansion thanks in large measure to government sponsorship of research and development. On the other hand, science and technology during the 1960s and early 1970s had also come under increasing scrutiny and criticism in such works as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society (1964), Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), Theodore Roczak's The Making of a Counter Culture (1967), and Charles Reich's The Greening of America (1970). Issues ranging from the unwanted side effects of pesticides to unsafe automobiles and the escalating arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union all contributed to an increasing awareness of, and concern about, the direction of modern technological society.

Against this backdrop, Representative Daddario, as chair of the Science, Research, and Development Subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Astronautics, began exploring possibilities for equipping lawmakers with a mechanism through which the unwanted side effects of the burgeoning technological revolution could be foreseen and, thereby, forestalled. In essence, he envisioned arming the federal government with "a method of analysis that systematically appraises the nature, significance, status, and merit of a technological program" (Daddario 1967, p. 8). To perform this task, he recommended establishment of a technology assessment board, which, with its apt acronym, "TAB," would remain alert to the potential dangers and benefits of new technologies.

Concern over unwanted side effects of technological development, however, composed only one-half of the OTA mandate. In the face of an expanding federal budget for science and technology, members of Congress increasingly expressed concern that the legislative branch of government was being outstripped by the executive branch, thus making it difficult for Congress to fulfill its duties in the appropriations process and in the oversight of executive agencies. Specifically, members of Congress began demanding that the legislature have its own source of technical advice, independent from the executive branch.

These two distinct functions—namely, an early warning mechanism and independent scientific and technical advice—came together as Daddario's subcommittee completed the OTA legislation. The marriage, however, was an uneasy one. At the outset, Congress ensured that its membership would retain tight control over both the overall direction of the office and its specific tasks. A bipartisan Technology Assessment Board (TAB) governed the OTA. In addition to the nonvoting director, it consisted of six senators and six representatives, with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. Assisting the TAB was the Technology Assessment Advisory Committee (TAAC). Comprising scientific and technical experts appointed by the TAB, the TAAC was charged with making recommendations to the TAB on the operations of the office and on specific assessments—but only on TAB request.

Success and Failure

Under Daddario, who served as the first director from 1973 to 1977, the OTA managed to navigate the tensions of its dual mission of providing independent advice and assessing the negative impacts of technology. Under Daddario, the office earned a reputation for providing timely and high-quality, if rather low-profile, studies in response to committee requests. But in contrast to the initial vision of the OTA as a bold early-warning apparatus, the office, in those early years, failed to fulfill its role as an assertive policy-influencing mechanism. As such, in the eyes of some critics, the office proved a stark disappointment.

The second director, Russell Peterson (a former Republican governor of Delaware), had grander visions. Rather than dodging controversy and serving as mere adjunct of congressional committees, Peterson sought more autonomy for the OTA. In concert with the original early-warning idea, he envisioned the office as a leading force in defining federal technology policy. To that end, he had the OTA promulgate its own list of priority areas in need of attention. These ranged from "Applications of Technology in Space" to "Impacts of Technology on Productivity, Inflation, and Employment" to various environmental issues. Peterson's initiatives, while truer to the original technology-assessment idea, failed to reckon with the other raison d'être: the desire for experts beholden to the legislature, independent of the executive branch. Not surprisingly, members of the TAB bristled at his attempt at autonomy, and Peterson's tenure lasted barely a year.

In contrast to Peterson and his idea of defining a broad agenda to influence national policy, the third director, John Gibbons, a former research director at oak ridge national labs, moved the office back into a more reserved role as obedient respondent to congressional committee requests and reliable information source for Congress. Under Gibbons, the office consciously avoided making policy recommendations in its reports. Small by federal government standards, the office had about 200 employees and an annual budget of approximately $20 million. The OTA stabilized and survived for the next fifteen years under Gibbons and its final director, Roger Herdman, who took over when Gibbons left in 1993 to become science adviser to President Clinton. But, in forsaking a role as a policy advocate "assessing" alternatives, its leaders sowed the seeds of its eventual demise.

In early 1995, fresh off victory in the 1994 elections, fiscally conservative members of Congress sought to reduce the federal budget. Precisely because the OTA had defined itself as an objective information agency rather than a more autonomous and assertive policy advocate, it became hard to defend the office against charges that its functions could be subsumed into the legislature's much larger source for independent information, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress. Not persuaded that the OTA offered something that set it apart from the more traditional research capabilities of the CRS, Congress eliminated funding for the OTA in 1995.

In its twenty-three year history, the OTA produced some very solid and reputable studies in response to congressional committee requests. These included approximately 750 reports on topics ranging from energy to transportation to health. In the broader scheme of things, however, the OTA is perhaps more noteworthy insofar as it sheds light on an interesting attempt by U.S. lawmakers to equip government with an ability to foresee technological development and how, because of the executive–legislative tensions existing in the U.S. federal government, that initiative became configured and constrained by broader political and institutional dynamics.


SEE ALSO Constructive Technology Assessment;Discourse Ethics;Technology Assessment in Germany and Other European Countries.


Bimber, Bruce. (1996). The Politics of Expertise in Congress: The Rise and Fall of the Office of Technology Assessment. Albany: State University of New York Press. Professor Bimber uses the OTA as a case study to explore the politicization of expert advice in congressional agencies, concluding that the pluralistic nature of Congress results in more objective advice than that which prevails in executive agencies.

Daddario, Emilio Q. (1967). Technology Assessment. Statement prepared for the Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Development of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. 90th Cong., 1st sess. Committee Print.

Kunkle, Gregory C. (1995). "New Challenge or the Past Revisited: The Office of Technology Assessment in Historical Context." Technology in Society 17(2): 175–196. The author examines the early history of the OTA to shed light on the then-current debate about abolishing the OTA, arguing that proponents of the OTA had to redefine the mission of the agency as something more than mere independent information in order for the OTA to survive.

U.S. Office of Technology Assessment. "The Ota Legacy, 1972–1995." CD-ROM, Sn 052-003-01457-2. Pittsburgh, PA: U.S. Government Printing Office. This CD contains a collection of all of the official OTA reports prepared for Congress. The reports are also available at

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