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OTA dies, but its analyses will live on.

That mordant slogan, worn by many long-time staffers last week, characterized their reaction to the closing of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment Sept. 30. With the end of the federal fiscal year, all but 17 of OTA's employees lost their jobs. And those 17, who are archiving the agency's files, inventorying furniture, closing out contracts, and emptying computer files, will themselves be out of a job come Jan. 31.

Over OTA's 23-year history, staff analysts have issued some 750 reports in response to requests from congressional committees. These ran the gamut from investigations into unconventional cancer therapies, the reliability of polygraph tests, and telecommunications opportunities for American Indians, to ways of reducing urban ozone, designing less-polluting products, and simulating combat. All of the analyses focused on issues with a considerable scientific or technical component. Moreover, they often laid the groundwork for legislation.

But last December, Senate Republicans backed a congressional reform plan drafted by Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Connie Mack (R-Fla.) that included a recommendation to abolish OTA. This year, Republican leaders in the House and Senate convened hearings on the matter. And though few criticized OTA's work, several invited witnesses argued that the office's investigatory activities duplicated those of other agencies--such as the Congressional Research Service (CRS)--or was simply a luxury in this era of extremely tight budgets.

Abolishing OTA promises no great savings, however. Its $23 million annual budget equals just half a percent of the cost of weapons not requested by the Department of Defense but nonetheless added to DOD's fiscal 1996 appropriation by the House National Security Committee.

Indeed, OTA's size made it especially vulnerable, says Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), who was slated to become chairman of the agency's bipartisan board this coming year. "You don't cut the big bully down to size because he's too big to handle. But the little guy, who may even be the next genius, you can pummel the dickens out of him. And that's what happened to OTA," he says.

Roger Herdman, the agency's last director, points to OTA's low visibility as an additional factor. Unlike the CRS, which will look up information for any member of Congress, OTA worked only for committees. As a result, Herdman says, most of the large group of incoming legislators last year experienced the value of CRS immediately. In contrast, he says, "the opportunity to know OTA well came as you served more time, rose in the leadership, and became committee chairmen." These leaders may be influential, he says, but there were too few of them when the fate of the agency came to a vote this summer.

After getting their proverbial pink slips in mid-August, OTA employees expedited their work schedules to complete 27 additional analyses, filling some 4,200 pages. Ten books--1,500 pages of camera-ready text--were finished and sent to the printer only last week.

What made it possible, Herdman explains, was 60 days of severance pay and the commitment of OTA staff. About 130 of the agency's 142 full-time employees stayed to the end. "These federal employees, 100 percent of whom just got fired, stayed until the very last second of the life of their agency--just to turn out all of the work that they possibly could for those employers who just fired them," he noted with pride.

In fact, as those last 17 books begin returning from the printer, many OTA employees will return to work gratis, stuffing the reports into envelopes for mailing to Congress and the public.

Anyone not already on the mailing list for these reports can obtain them through the Internet. OTA will make the last 2 years of its offerings available on its World Wide Web site (http://www.ota.gov). By January, all 23 years' worth of OTA reports will be available from the federal government on CD-ROM.
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Title Annotation:Office of Technology Assessment
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 7, 1995
Words:639
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