Our First Branch of Government Needs Science Too


Editor’s Note: Lucia Simonelli just completed her year as the AMS Congressional Fellow. She served in the office of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and focused her work there on his climate agenda. She received her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Maryland-College Park and, prior to her year in Congress, had been a postdoctoral fellow in the mathematics section at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy.  Lucia is now a Senior Policy Fellow at Carbon180.

When we think of science expertise in government we often think of the NSF, NIH, CDC, or even national laboratories. We are reasonably aware of the structure, function, funding, reputation, and even scrutiny of many of these executive branch entities. However, we hear much less about the status of the scientific, technical, and medical expertise available to Congress, and consequently, these resources have been especially vulnerable to cuts and dissolution.

I begin with some historical context. Twenty-five years ago, Congress was a rather different place. There were significantly more Congressional staff, especially in committees. There were also substantially more staff serving in the Congressional support agencies; these support agencies are essential to the health and function of the legislative branch as they provide neutral, confidential, and credible resources to Congressional members and staff. Congress even had its own “think tank” called the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) with a mission and capacity to anticipate the scientific, technological, and medical issues that would eventually necessitate policy action.

During this time, circa 1995, under the guise of an initiative called “Contract with America,” Congress was stripped of many of these vital resources. Staff was cut, and the OTA was entirely defunded. Targeting the OTA specifically was political. It was the smallest of the Congressional support agencies, so it was the easiest to eliminate (the budget of the OTA was less than 1% of the legislative branch budget).  It was a very powerful symbol to cite the elimination of an entire agency.  In addition, particular results of the OTA’s thorough and comprehensive assessments were perceived to be at odds with certain political agendas.

It is difficult enough for Congress to come together and effectively act in the wake of a crisis – take for example the turbulence of the past few months. But what has become painstakingly clear is that in the context of certain crises, reactionary politics are not adequate; we must be well-positioned to act before.  And currently, Congress is not equipped with adequate resources to craft the forward-thinking policies that many issues do and will require.

One of the primary functions of the OTA was to craft “horizon scanning” reports which included the most cutting-edge findings available, compiled in a form readily utilizable by Congress. In addition, while not ever making policy recommendations, these reports provided comprehensive analyses of the policy options and the implications of these options through a transparent process open even to stakeholders. These public and peer-reviewed reports laid the foundation for many key pieces of legislation and remain highly regarded among experts in various technical fields. Princeton University has preserved an archive of these reports.

Imagine if Congress had these thorough, bipartisan resources for pandemics on hand a few months ago – there would certainly have been a report, if not multiple reports, on pandemics and pandemic responses after the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, Zika, etc. The reality is that we are facing an increasing number of issues that can only be dealt with successfully by anticipation, not reaction: climate change, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and quantum computing, to name a few.

In addition, OTA was Congress’s trusted intermediary, taking information, restricting it to fact-based arguments, and presenting it accordingly. The staff at OTA, and the network of experts created through the production of each report, served as invaluable, nonpartisan, consultative resources to Congress. OTA staff was often integrated directly with Congressional staff, and they were available to serve as in-house experts.

The vacuum of expertise left by defunding the OTA and cutting staff and capacities of other agencies, specifically in science, technology and medicine, has forced Congress to obtain its information externally. Increasingly, Congress has relied on outside stakeholders for expert advice and information. While stakeholders’ perspectives are invaluable, special interest and bias inevitably accompany these sources. Congress also now heavily relies on executive branch agencies – the very agencies for which Congress is tasked to provide oversight.  Consequently, cuts to the legislative branch have not made government smaller or less powerful, they have instead disproportionately allocated power.

“Failing to augment Congress’ technological expertise also ensures the preferences of executive branch agencies and private interests hold the greatest sway in technology policy decisions, to the detriment of the public interest. To address this, Congress needs to bring back its nerds.”[1]

There is a glimmer of hope as momentum grows to increase science and technology resources for Congress. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to revive a modernized version of the OTA, accompanied by appropriations requests from a growing cast of Members to refund the OTA and to increase science and technology capacity in currently operating agencies, e.g., the creation of the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team within the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Andrew Yang even included reviving the OTA as part of his 2020 presidential campaign platform.

Various fellowship and rotator programs have been developed to place experts from academia, industry, or executive branch entities in Congress. Examples include the AMS Congressional Fellowship and the TechCongress Fellowship.

While it is vital to advocate for increased and continued support for science in the executive branch, it is essential that we also push for Congress, the first branch of government, to have the expertise necessary to properly and effectively carry out its constitutional functions.


[1] Zach Graves, Kevin Kosar: Bring Back the Nerds: Reviving the Office of Technology Assessment (R Street) http://2o9ub0417chl2lg6m43em6psi2i.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Final-128.pdf



About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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