DC on T2

Capitol Corner — November 2019

capitol corner

Published monthly as part of the FLC’s DC Perspective content, the Capitol Corner focuses on one notable news item pertaining to the T2 community. The focus stems from agency publications, news sites, and DC-central organizations, with original sources, contacts, and links provided. For more information and Corner-related inquiries, please contact dcnews@federallabs.org.

In September 2018, the House Committee on Rules published a Conference Report to accompany H.R. 5895, or the session that presented three appropriations bills for fiscal year (FY) 2019. In that report, Congress directed the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to collaborate with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to create a report that:  1) evaluated resources the legislative branch utilizes to enact science and technology (S&T) policy; 2) discussed the possibility of resurrecting the concept of a nonpartisan entity for S&T issue resolution, like the defunct Office of Technology Assessment (OTA); and 3) finally addressed whether such a resurrection would duplicate present or future congressional S&T policy decisions.

We reported in May that the CRS was founded “to support their legislative, oversight, and representational functions by providing nonpartisan and confidential research and policy analysis.” Such a mission matches an initiative started in Congress the previous year to fund the OTA’s restoration to the tune of $6 million. The OTA was active from 1972 to 1995 and produced more than 700 scientific studies to propose and enact technological regulation. As Illinois’ Sean Casten and California’s Mark Takano opined this past spring, “as we consider the use of technologies such as AI, facial recognition, quantum computing, and emerging energy storage and generation in both the private and public sectors, it is increasingly important that Congress have unbiased assessments of what is on the horizon … the OTA’s role is to chart the way forward by generating new knowledge that answers those questions and fills those gaps.”

NAPA released that commissioned report late this month, with an accompanying webcast held by the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. The webcast featured remarks from Yuri Beckelman, Rep. Takano’s Chief of Staff, among other policy directors and academics, including select individuals who worked on the report. According to the front matter of NAPA’s S&T Policy Assessment, NAPA “provides expert advice to government leaders in building more effective, efficient, accountable, and transparent organizations” from over 900 fellows in the public and private sectors. This specific report was designed to provide “context for understanding congressional needs, including an overall decline in staff and time devoted to S&T and other policy issues.” Each option discussed above—enhancing existing entities, creating a new agency similar to the OTA, or doing both—was evaluated according to how well it could meet customer needs, how seamlessly it could be implemented, and the likelihood of long-term success. Customer satisfaction was weighed more heavily than ease of implementation and forecasting.

In summary, NAPA chose to recommend the third option, “Enhance Existing Entities and Create Office of the Congressional S&T Advisor.” Under this recommendation, the CRS would expand and enhance its current initiatives to consult and resolve S&T policy issues and pathways. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) will also continue standing up its new Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) mission office. STAA was created in February to conduct technology assessments, audit S&T programs for their effectiveness and cost control, as well as use engineering best practices to tie together their independent measures of the cost control, schedule efficiency, and technological readiness of these initiatives. STAA also has plans to create an innovation lab to pilot new advanced analysis and explore other emerging technologies before they reach widespread adoption.

NAPA also encouraged creation of the Office of the Congressional S&T Advisor (OCSTA). OCSTA would support recruiting S&T advisors in Congress to perform policy oversight as well as horizon scanning. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines horizon scanning as “a technique for detecting early signs of potentially important developments through a systematic examination of potential threats and opportunities, with emphasis on new technology and its effects on the issue at hand. The method calls for determining what is constant, what changes, and what constantly changes.” Given Casten and Takano’s earlier comments about S&T policy’s role in governing AI and other leading-edge technologies, horizon scanning seems like a crucial methodology for this potential office. Finally, OCSTA would have a Coordinating Council staffed by STAA and CRS stakeholders to streamline existing resources in Congress to prevent duplicative work.

NAPA’s recommendations suggest a more coherent roadmap toward more effective S&T policy. As such, NAPA concludes by encouraging Congress to add legislative weight to the Academy report, as it would “announce to the public at large its commitment to keep the country on the cutting-edge of S&T issues.” With plenty of S&T policy decisions in the rearview for 2019, enacting NAPA’s policy recommendations doesn’t seem entirely improbable—more on this to follow before the year ends.

NAPA’s Science and Technology Policy Assessment: A Congressionally Directed Review can be read in full here. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s accompanying webcast, “Enhanced S&T Capacity in Congress Exploring Key Issues and Pathways,” can be viewed here.

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