May 29, 2020

Trump’s coronavirus response proves Congress once again needs its own science advisers

With an administration in power that mocks and disparages science — at the bidding of big special interests and for its own perceived political gain — it falls to Congress to ensure that our government is listening to science.

But right now, Congress itself often doesn’t act on the best available scientific knowledge — in no small part because of a fateful decision by Congress two and a half decades ago that cut off the flow of high quality, nonpartisan science to inform its decisions.

Until the mid-1990s, Congress employed its own scientists and experts at a nonpartisan “think tank” called the Office of Technology Assessment. It was an agency similar to the Congressional Budget Office, which provides budget and economic analysis; the Government Accountability Office, which audits and investigates problems throughout government; and the Congressional Research Service, which provides legal and policy analysis for legislation as it’s written. OTA’s mission was to anticipate the implications of emerging technologies; to help Congress understand the scientific, technological and medical challenges and opportunities facing the nation; and to generate options for Congress.

Then came Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” In 1995, the then-new speaker of the House wanted to cut as much spending as he could, and a politically expedient thing to cut was Congress’ spending in particular. An entire congressional support agency was a tempting target; better still, why not the science one, the work of which annoyed powerful interests and for which the strongest support came from a weak constituency: scientists and policy wonks.

So congressional Republicans completely defunded — eliminated — OTA, and slashed scientific staff at the other support agencies.

Our experience with infectious disease in the intervening decades, even before the coronavirus pandemic, has shown how much we’ve missed the OTA. After the anthrax attacks in 2001 and global outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, MERS and Zika, there would certainly have been an OTA report (if not multiple reports) on pandemics and how best to respond to them. Such reports would likely have assembled the best, most cutting-edge findings available, and presented that best science in a form ready for Congress. But much more important, behind the reports would have stood a network of scientists trusted by both parties to serve as in-house experts to advise any office or committee.

Instead, we’ve seen painful examples of what happens when science is sidelined. Without the OTA, unreliable and even deliberately false information fills the void. There is a pervasive problem in Congress now of information channeled through lobbyists, anonymously funded front groups and special interests. Administrative agencies — if not outright captured by special interests — are barraged with the same lobbyist-driven information and disinformation. Or, perhaps worst of all, scientific information never makes it to Congress at all.

One example is the debacle of COVID-19 testing. A lack of adequate testing is a major reason for the United States’ catastrophically slow response to the current crisis. Among the loud and self-interested voices in the debate, Congress could have used an OTA to help separate wheat from chaff, ignorance from fact, and lies from truth in a highly technical field, and ultimately to help put in place federal programs that ensure adequate testing. Mitigating a pandemic is vastly more costly — in lives and dollars — than being ready for it.

The United States is a science powerhouse with no excuse for being so ill-prepared for the coronavirus. We have the highest concentration of infectious disease experts in the world at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health. We are the birthplace of biotechnology, and home to some of the world’s most advanced biomedical research and pharmaceutical companies. Our research universities are the best in the world.

Good science is not the problem. It’s our leaders’ willingness to find and listen to it, and then translate that into good policy decisions.

Congress still faces challenges that demand the headlights of science, from climate change to artificial intelligence to genome editing to cybersecurity — not to mention this and future pandemics. Taking on those challenges will demand more and more of the best scientific expertise and data, something no single member of Congress can marshal without help. We will need the OTA more than ever in decades to come.

Thankfully, Congress has begun to recognize the void left without a nonpartisan scientific agency supporting its work. There are now bipartisan bills in both the House and Senate to revive and modernize the OTA, and members are calling for funding to both restart the agency and to rebuild scientific capacity in Congress’s other support agencies.

Science provides society its headlights — showing us where we are going and warning us of dangers ahead. The steadily climbing death totals and dire economic fallout from COVID-19 are a price of driving without headlights.

As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., once said, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. By restoring Congress’s own scientific ability, we will help to ensure that it understands the facts. We must switch on our headlights. Then, together, we will see the challenges ahead more clearly and rise to meet them.

By: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Dr. Robert Cook-Deegan, professor, Arizona State University