The ACM”s public policy weblog has a nice discussion of Congress’s need for scientific and technical advice, prompted by a hearing on Tuesday on the topic. As in most other domains, the need for advice comes not from a lack of information, but rather from information overload, and specifically highly technical information overload:
Congress does not face an information shortage. Each day hundreds of documents are dumped on Congress, many of them dealing with technical issues. One witness said that staffers now receive about 200 e-mails daily from advocacy groups. Numerous groups provide scientific advice to Congress including think tanks, professional societies (such as ACM), the National Academies, governmental agencies, and even Congress’ own research service. None of the witnesses argued Congress needed more scientific and technical advice. They argued it needed independent advice that was more closely aligned with Congress’ needs, and that this need couldn’t be fulfilled by the various outside groups.
Particularly interesting was the analysis of how the lack of interest in reconstituting the old Office of Technology Assessment would impact the effectiveness of organizations such as the ACM providing technical advice. There was a definite note of frustration in the article, though I wonder if anyone is really surprised by the observation that under the current system scientific recommendations often take a back seat to political recommendations. Not having a codified method for collecting such input is probably indicative of a lowered interest in such input, but it doesn’t follow that a centralized clearinghouse for technical advice will guarantee that it is listened to.
At its heart, this seems like an education issue to me – so long as it is socially acceptable for even “well-educated” people to say that math and science are “hard” and beyond their grasp or interest, our government representatives are unlikely to have the inclination or abilities to evaluate even well-presented technical arguments.