How Congress Seeks, Processes, and Legislates Complex Science and Technology Issues

Peter S. Adler , Jeremy Kranowitz
Science and Technology Policy in Congress: An Assessment of How Congress Seeks, Processes, and Legislates Complex Science and Technology Issues
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

In 2006 and 2007, The Keystone Center (Keystone) worked with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Wilson Center) to address public policy formation around complex science and technology issues. A number of issues were (and continue to be) in the headlines: water scarcity and water contamination; climate change; nanotechnology; and genetics and stem cell research. Congress and the White House reflected the array of opinions from the broader public, based not just on partisan leanings and differences in values systems, but also from a general lack of scientific and technological knowledge. The Wilson Center and Keystone convened a panel of scientists and policy experts in 2007 to highlight different approaches that might be considered to improve general knowledge around these and other pressing subjects. [A brief summary of the subjects considered by the group can be found in Appendix C.]

At the same time, a review was conducted of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), including a look at its origins, its successes and challenges, and its ultimate demise in the mid-1990s. Over the past decade, several studies were conducted suggesting how Congress and the Administration should access this information, including suggestions to revive the OTA. However, very little work had been done to ask Members of Congress what they perceived to be the gap in knowledge and the best ways to address it from their own view. To answer these questions from this critical point of view, Keystone teamed up with the Consensus Building Institute (CBI) to conduct a series of interviews of current and past Members of Congress and their senior staff. [A list of interview questions is available in Appendix A, and a list of interviewees is available in Appendix B.]

We made several assumptions about the science and technology policy issues that come before Congress and that informed our interviews:

  • Congress is well-served by mediating, non-partisan institutions that focus on specific topics (two of note include the Congressional Budget Office on budget issues and the Government Accountability Office on issues of waste and fraud);
  • Congress uses scientific and technical information to inform its decisions, at least in part. However, Congress currently lacks a science and technology-specific mediating institution that explicitly provides education, understanding, and analysis of the key issues it needs to consider.
  • Congress, at least as a whole, cares about information that is credible (i.e., it might withstand the critique of professional peers) and legitimate (i.e., considered reasoned or acceptable in the eyes of diverse constituencies). 

Through our interviews, we sought to answer the following questions:

  • What are the perceived gaps in how Members of Congress access state-of-the-art science, especially science that is uncertain and contested, to best inform the decisions and actions of government; and,
  • How strong is the desire among Members of Congress to access information that is technically credible and legitimate in the eyes of diverse stakeholders? 

Read the complete "Science and Technology Policy in Congress: An Assessment of How Congress Seeks, Processes, and Legislates Complex Science and Technology Issues".

Read a summary of the Congressional briefing.