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How to revolutionize Washington with 140 people.

How to Revolutionize Washington with 140 People

Although probably nobody at the Pentagon would admit it, their much-prized Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) may have already been shot down. Not by a particle beam. Not by an antisatellite pellet-warhead or a space mine. But by OTA--hardly a space-based techno-marvel--just Congress's Office of Technology Assessment, very much ground-based in a red-brick neocolonial at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 6th Street S.E.

As part of its mandate to keep Congress apprised of emerging and future technologies, OTA undertook a study of SDI, focusing especially on the system's technical feasibility and survivability. Contrary to much of the rhetoric we'd been getting from administration partisans and military men ever since Ronald Reagan's 1983 speech first broached the idea of the system, OTA's principal findings were: 1) Even under the most generous assumptions about our deployment and Soviet counter-moves, the contemplated wonder system "might destroy anywhere from a few up to a modest fraction" of attacking Soviet ICBM warheads (emphasis added); 2) The system might be able "to protect successfully a useful fraction of certain sets of U.S. military targets" (emphasis added); 3) Certain types of nuclear anti-satellite weapons available to the Soviets in the 1990s "pose a significant threat" to SDI and "might prevent full system deployment and operation altogether"; 4) "There would be a significant probability (i.e., one large enough to take seriously) that the first (and presumably only) time [SDI was]...used in a real war, it would suffer a catastrophic failure [emphasis added]....The relatively slow rate of improvement in software engineering technology makes it appear unlikely to OTA that this situation will be substantially alleviated in the foreseeable future."

If you live beyond the Beltway, chances are you haven't heard much about OTA on Star Wars or on anything else. And although OTA's criticism of SDI was literally page one news in D.C.--"Hill Agency Challenges Reagan Vision" was the Post headline--most Washingtonians likewise haven't the foggiest notion. Hardly anybody anywhere knows that it is one of the few government bodies succeeding at something worthwhile.

The range of topics OTA takes on is astounding. The office's publications include:

"Wood Use: U.S. Competitiveness and Technology"

"The Border War on Drugs"

"Displaced Homemakers:Programs and Policy"

"Technology and Handicapped People"

"World Petroleum Availability: 1980-2000"

"Issues in Medical Waste Management"

"Automation of America's Offices"

"Energy Technology Transfer to China"

"Do Insects Transmit AIDS?" (Very unlikely, says OTA.)

The study OTA did on the validity of polygraph testing concluded that despite widespread industrial use of the devices, they were highly unreliable for employee screening. This report was cited frequently in the House and Senate hearings leading to last year's federal ban of most polygraph testing in the private sector.

A few years back, in its studies of the decisionmaking processes in high energy-consuming industries, OTA discovered that although such firms will accept very long payback periods for product development and other investments, virtually all of them were limiting their energy-conserving investments to those achieving payback within three years. In short, the agency proved that the then-available available 10 percent industrial energy tax credit had virtually no influence on corporate conservation practices. Upon receiving this information, Congress dropped that tax credit.

With only 140 employees, OTA is one of the smallest agencies in Washington--John Gibbons, OTA's director, jokes that "the Botanical Gardens are smaller than we are, but that's about it." Yet despite producing reports with a press run of only a few thousand copies, OTA's findings often reach a surprisingly wide audience. Within a recent six-month period, for example, an OTA report on infertility found its way into such diverse publications as Harper's, Hippocrates, Self, Ms., Parenting, and Glamour.

OTA's work is important because most of the great national concerns dominating the front page since about 1970 have had significant technological dimensions. You want to know how to deal with acid rain, nuclear war, a sagging steel or auto industry, Medicare costs, global warming, workplace safety, AIDS, or air safety? Then you've got a lot of homework to do. Getting help with its homework was what Congress had in mind when it created OTA in 1972.

Yet what's most important about OTA is not what it studies but how it studies it. In evaluating various technologies and their application or regulation by the government, OTA tries to see what works and what doesn't. In this respect, it differs from most other investigators and journalists in Washington, who are preoccupied instead with illegality and impropriety, mostly of the monetary sort. For when OTA looks at a government activity, it is usually to determine not whether money is spent legally but whether it is spent wisely. At its best, OTA is one of the few organizations actually looking into whether government does its job well.

Tennis shoes and binoculars

Pick up an OTA study or two and you'll notice something else unusual--they make it clear why the reader should care about the problem at hand. Here's the opening paragraph of "Transportation of Hazardous Materials": "Hazardous materials are transported safely every hour of every day. Yet few activities with such statistically low risks arouse such intense public concern. Houston citizens did not remain calm when a speeding truck carrying an intermodal tank of highly flammable methyl methacrylate hit an exit ramp guardrail. The driver was killed. The tank broke open, its contents ignited, and the resulting inferno destroyed part of the freeway and dropped burning debris on the street below. Fortunately, no one else was hurt, and the Houston Fire Department already had a hazardous materials response team with the knowledge and the equipment to handle the accident. Denver residents were similarly stunned when a truckload of Navy torpedoes overturned one Sunday morning on a city freeway exit loop. No one was injured, but hours passed before experienced federal assistance arrived. Worried state and local officials did not know whether the scattered weapons needed to be defused before cleanup could begin." The important thing about this kind of writing is not that it's effective--although that it is--but rather that it's a sign the authors haven't been lulled to sleep by their topic. Despite many meetings suffered through and files dusted off, it's obvious the investigators haven't been tricked into thinking that their topic is some dull little time-filler. They know that they are working on it because THERE ARE TRUCKS FULL OF TORPEDOES OUT THERE.

This alertness to the reality quotient goes hand in hand with a sensitivity to significant and helpful details. Once again turn to the hazardous materials report: "Arguments over statistics are immaterial to the public safety person first at the scene of the accident. He is likely to be one of the nation's one million largely untrained volunteer firefighters and may be confronted with a placarded, derailed railroad tank car spewing a mysterious cloud that burns his eyes. Chances are his basic training has included suiting up, moving in, and spraying water or foam on such a car. He probably has not heard that the simplest equipment for dealing with a hazardous materials accident includes tennis shoes and binoculars--tennis shoes to run away and binoculars to read the hazardous materials placard from a distance."

Or consider the OTA report on infertility. The woman's perspective is put across like this: "You are sitting in the waiting room of your doctor's office. You have been trying to have a baby for three years and things are not happening the way you had planned. You have been on clomiphene for a year. Lately you cry at the drop of a hat--when you see a diaper commercial on television, see a pregnant woman at the grocery store, or get an invitation to a baby shower. The whole world seems to be having babies.

"You always thought of yourself as competent, able to handle anything. Now you feel depressed every month when your period begins. You are beginning to think that having a baby is the only thing that will make your life worthwhile. You feel odd, different. Everyone can have a baby. What's wrong with me?"

The man's perspective is sketched in equally personal terms: "It is 2 p.m. You are sitting with your wife in the doctor's office, waiting to be told what to do next to get your wife pregnant. You gave a semen sample two days ago to some lab person. You are sure that humiliating experience was just the beginning of many more. You are wondering how bad your sperm are....

"What if the doctor suggests a specialist, another semen sample, surgery on your testes? Don't they know how much you hate masturbating in the bathroom while they wait outside? You wonder if your wife will want to be with you if you can't give her a child. How will you explain to your family that you can't continue their name? What if your wife wants to use donor sperm? Can she possibly understand how defective and inadequate this makes you feel?"

Patents and poets

The OTA report on the use of contractors in the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund suggests that the EPA is being hurt by its increasing dependence on environmental consultants with substantial commitments to the waste management industry. You could trade statistics back and forth about that forever. And while the OTA's report does wade into that numerical swamp, it also makes the more telling decision to look at the emerging culture of the waste management world. The report notes that "the brochure announcing the `Hazardous Waste Business 89' conference in March 1989...opens with `Win your share of the billion in profits ahead.' The brochure goes on to give examples of success stories: companies whose revenues and profits have increased dramatically in recent years. Of the 24 sessions at the conference presented by the industry's leaders, not one deals with managing and assuring environmental performance or quality of company products or services."

These excerpts highlight the aspect of the OTA perspective that is particularly striking for an operation dedicated to technology issues--its readiness to appreciate and emphasize the human factors and solutions embedded in a technical problem. The OTA report, "Patenting Life," which addresses the maze of scientific, legal, and regulatory issues raised by the new recombinant genetics, nonetheless prominently features an admirably clear discussion of the relevant ethical considerations. The main emphasis in OTA's studies of air traffic safety has been tightening up accountability inside the FAA, strengthening hiring, certification, inspection, and reporting standards--not automatically buying high-priced new technologies. Similarly, OTA has urged much more government and industry involvement in long-term research into human error in the cockpit and control tower. The office's work on highway truck safety also focused on the people behind the machinery. It recommended improved emergency response training, improved screening of driver accident records, and tighter regulations governing permissible driver hours and blood-alcohol levels, while calling for aggressive federal research into sleep and fatigue. The general public was surprised that the Exxon Valdez oil spill was probably caused by a drunk captain. Readers of OTA reports were not.

"With highly technical organizations like the FAA, the tendency is to look for a technical fix," says Edith Page, OTA project director for these airline and trucking studies, "and the human factors emphasis is such a revelation to them."

OTA's skepticism about technology-for-technology's-sake is a product of the kind of people who work there. They are not narrow specialists. "In the early days they sometimes called us the Office of Technology Harassment," recalls John Gibbons. Page, for instance, is a former English professor who wrote her master's thesis on the poet George Herbert. Gibbons himself is as prone to quoting Sophocles and Edna St. Vincent Millay as to discussing his own work on the evolution of the heavy elements.

The current staff also includes: a guy with degrees in religious studies and forestry, a computer whiz with advanced degrees in forestry and soil science who's also a lawyer and one of the world's leading oceanographers, and a registered nurse with a Ph.D. in philosophy. "You want to make sure you understand the problem or the opportunity in its larger dimensions," Gibbons emphasizes, "and you can't do that with just engineers and economists."

Mutant petunias

So we see the formula for success beginning to emerge: readable, compelling reports written by broad-gauged authors who understand the human dimensions of technological problems. Another crucial factor in this success is that OTA's work, unlike so much academic analysis, does not rely solely on written sources. At OTA, the authors get out of the office. They interview people in the field. They see what is happening.

For her airline safety work, Edith Page has done shifts in air traffic control centers and has flown in planes testing anticollision devices by flying near-crash courses. For the truck safety study, she sent one of her analysts out on a four-day cross-country trip with a driver. That's one of the ways OTA found out the extent to which government rest requirements have fallen victim to company deadlines. And Page herself drove an 18-wheeler. "You should have seen the driver looking at this lady in her high heels. Marv, his name was. He was very nervous. The stopping wasn't so much of a problem, but the gear shift was. You have 16 gears and you've got to ooooch it over."

This is not to say that OTA has a flawless record. Some of its reports have been wrong. Like the May 1988 report on "Field-Testing Engineered Organisms." This was OTA's attempt to look at what happens when the rubber of genetics meets the road of the environment. Are we setting ourselves up for and Andromeda Strain--runaway mutant killer organisms of our own design? While hardly saying this, the report endorsed, without exception, a requirement of a case-by-case review for each proposed engineered organism before it is introduced or tested in the field. This position struck many people in science and government as excessive and naive. One very senior official at a Health and Human Services agency with extensive biotechnology responsibilities--despite thinking that on the average, OTA reports are good--says this report was "really awful." He asserts: "If someone wants to cross a petunia with a tulip in their garden to see if they like the result, they don't have to come to EPA and FDA! We just don't do that. That would be disruptive to industry and academics. It would overwhelm government."

Other outside reviewers had similar criticisms. One biochemistry professor claimed the report conflicted with "a substantial record of expert opinion," including the National Academy of Sciences report on the same subject. And an embryology professor called the document "a ruinously corrupting lie," marked by "regulatory doublespeak." But when OTA's Gibbons got wind of these complaints he had several congressmen on the OTA board write to the HHS official's boss asking him, in Gibbons's words, to "call off his dog."

So Gibbons seems to have compounded a bad report by a close-minded reaction to criticism of it. For someone who is constantly urging other agencies to be open to evaluation, such defensiveness is especially unfortunate.

OTA's main danger, however, is not being too resistant to criticism but caving in to it. For every OTA report, there is a 10 to 15 member outside advisory panel populated exclusively by non-OTA experts and interest group representatives. The advisory group for one recent report included representatives from Boeing, General Motors, United Airlines, the Air Line Pilots Association, the Teamsters, the New York Port Authority, the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission, Public Citizen, and Harvard.

When this panel system works well, it can produce results like this positive one described by Edith Page: "The American Petroleum Institute had a representative from Exxon on the advisory panel for our report on the transportation of hazardous materials," Page remembers. "And he did not like it at all that we said that more injuries and damage occur from shipments of gasoline than from shipments of all other hazardous materials put together. He wanted us to take that out entirely, and I said, `I'm sorry, but we can't do that because it happens to be true.' He said, `Well, we know it's true.' And I asked, `How can we say that without threatening you?' I pointed out that we also know gasoline makes up about half the shipments. `Well,' he said, `why don't you say that too--in the same sentence.'"

In other words, the outside panel system works when the OTA staff is willing both to listen to the outsiders and--when the facts dictate it--take stands against them. In this case Page did both, hearing a legitimate point made by the industry rep but not allowing him to alter the truth.

Vital bodily fluids

Less steadfastness was displayed by Gibbons when the Pentagon objected to R. Jeffrey Smith's Washington Post story on the SDI report. After the story came out Smith's editor received a letter cosigned by Gibbons and the then-director of the Pentagon's SDI office saying that Smith's story didn't accurately represent OTA's report in all respects. "This was outrageous," states Smith, who based his story directly on material supplied by OTA, "and showed OTA at its most callow."

Another occasional result of the outside pressure is blandness. One OTA report contains this unhelpful pronouncement: "Arguments can be made both for and against the idea of including information about financial gain in the required disclosure of information to patients and research subjects." And there's the tendency to give polite consideration to arguments that don't really merit it. As one critic of OTA observes: "In a report on the quality of the water supply, you don't have to give consideration to the view that flouridation is a communist plot to sap our vital bodily fluids."

But OTA is not routinely mealymouthed. "OTA finds that aviation safety will be best served by introducing [the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System] on commercial aircraft as soon as possible," states one report. "OTA finds that federal accident records suffer from significant underreporting and do not provide an accurate assessment of the level of safety..." states another.

It's with unequivocal findings like these that OTA is making an important contribution to the congressional understanding of technological issues. Another recent OTA success is cited by the ranking minority member of the House Science, Space and Technology committee, Rep. Robert Walker, who refers to the study his committee commissioned on multi-purpose, low-tech payload rockets--so-called "big dumb boosters." "That's something that NASA and the military have not been particularly anxious to look at. Because the operating concept in rocketry in the country has always been to build the highest tech rockets available....Big dumb boosters are a totally different concept. To get NASA or the Air Force to look at that concept is to have them reject all that they believe about technology, and you need somebody like OTA to step in to say that this may be viable."

As an example of OTA work instrumental in the development of legislation, Kathleen Merrigan, a Senate Agriculture Committee staff member, refers to the office's recent study covering U.S. investment in biotechnology, which showed a great lack of government financial commitment to agricultural biotech. "That's something Senator Leahy knew about and had talked about with a lot of people, but once that report came out, he had credible numbers to use. He will use that report when he talks to the Department of Agriculture going into the 1990 farm bill."

Senator Leahy wasn't the only one who appreciated OTA's work on the topic. "That report was of such interest to the Japanese," reveals Merrigan "that they had it fully translated within one week after it came out."
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Title Annotation:Office of Technology Assessment
Author:Shuger, Scott
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1989
Previous Article:Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American.
Next Article:Have Mac, will publish; today's alternative papers are surprisingly good. Here's why.

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