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Harnessing Citizen Scientists

Let’s Create a Very Public Office of Technology Assessment

OTA logo with men and women around it SOURCE: SP Congress should bring back the OTA, but this time with a prominent role for the public, especially the burgeoning numbers of citizen scientists.

Donna, a middle-aged suburban homemaker, monitors fish spawns in Del Mar, CA. Bradley, a tech entrepreneur from Brooklyn, NY, uses his home weather station to report into one of 5,000 weather web sites feeding data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. And Patrick, a project manager from Piscataway, NJ, contributes to the more than 12 million annual bird migration observations across North America.

Welcome to the world of citizen scientists. Never before in recent history have so many average citizens, untrained in the sciences, turned themselves into amateur researchers. They are not waiting for an invitation or hoping the next generation will improve on the country’s dismal science literacy rates. Instead, they are jumping in now to change the way science gets done. And they may hold the key to the development of a sound national science policy.

“Citizen science” has helped democratize science and helped people to understand they can have an influence on science by being a part of it,” argues Rick Bonney, an education expert at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY, in the Cyber Diver News Network column, “Volunteer Citizen Scientists Dive in for Sex on the Beach,” (the column, by the way, is about cataloguing fish mating habits on the beach).

Scientists and Congress should trust the public’s capacity to learn, draw conclusions, and contribute.

“Lately, all manner of ways to ‘involve’ the public in science policy and practice have cropped up,” add Rick Borchelt and Kathy Hudson in a recent Science Progress column, “Engaging the Scientific Community with the Public.” “Scientific associations are developing centers devoted to public engagement in science, funding agencies have created sweeping mandates for collecting public input on research, and research-performing institutions are hosting community meetings and science cafes about their work.”

In fact, Congress mandates that federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, among others, fulfill public input and outreach activities. Individually, members of Congress also solicit public input through their websites. And, researchers, looking for ways to stretch limited budgets and secure public support for their work, are starting to pay attention to the lay public, too.

Problem is, Congress is no longer talking to scientists or the public (including our citizen scientists) like they used to. When the congressional Office of Technology Assessment was shut down in 1995, Congress lost its independent experts, which in turn led to less and less thoughtful science policymaking by members of Congress, and more and more partisan squabbling over “sound science.” Citizens interested in science who once relied on their representatives to turn to the OTA for advice were suddenly left out in the cold; today’s budding legions of citizen scientists have no single congressional office to help or make their voices heard.

Without the OTA, special interest groups, researchers, and politicians all rushed in—all of them claiming to speak on the public’s behalf. A crisis of public trust escalated. As Bochelt and Hudson note, “an erosion of public trust that began as a trickle of doubt about radiation safety and pesticides has grown to program-threatening uprisings against emerging new technologies, from genetically altered “Frankenfoods” to concern over “grey goo” in nanotechnology.”

It is time to have a new OTA, but one with citizen participation. Scientists and Congress should trust the public’s capacity to learn, draw conclusions, and contribute. Invite the public to do more, and put a process in place so citizens and researchers can work together to impart sound policy advice to Congress. In short, they should help bridge the divide.

The obvious way to do this is for Congress to appropriate funds to reopen a new Office of Technology Assessment, and include legislative language requiring it to solicit input from a diversity of stakeholders. This is not a new idea. Just prior to the shuttering of OTA, political scientist Norman Vig called for the OTA to hold “public consensus conferences” to broaden the range of people who could influence science policy decisions.[1]

Indeed, other nations have been quicker to recognize the need to listen to the voice of the people. In 1995, for example, the Danish Parliament established a Board of Technology that has consistently employed a number of participatory methods, including jury deliberations, workshops and consensus conferences. Right now, the Danish agency is initiating a “World Wide Views on Global Warming” study. Citizens from all over the world will work with scientific experts, political decision makers and other stakeholders to address key environmental issues in preparation for the 2009 United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen.

A set of converging factors call for creating a new, inclusive, forward-thinking Office of Technology Assessment.

In the United States, the idea of bringing back the OTA has never been dormant. In the 13 years since the OTA closed, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) have championed several attempts to reopen its doors. Other efforts are mounting. Yet, as noted science journalist Chris Mooney wrote in a Science Progress column titled “Science, Delayed” earlier this year, “the quest to restore dedicated science advice for Congress through a reborn Office of Technology Assessment has proven more difficult than one might have supposed.”

Congress is right not to reopen the old OTA. The name alone strikes a negative chord with partisan detractors who feel the Office took too long to produce reports and duplicated work by other agencies. And we shouldn’t be looking for excuses to reopen the kind of OTA designed in the 1960s, prior to globalization, in a new era of public participation and the Internet, which makes it possible to expedite research and reporting. But a set of converging factors call for creating a new, inclusive, forward-thinking Office of Technology Assessment. Now is the time for Congress to establish a mechanism to combine these forces and produce meaningful, transparent science policy—based on advice that takes into account scientific data, policy implications, and the opinions of citizens.

“Politics always swamps science,” says Michael Rodemeyer, former counsel to the House Committee on Science and Technology who is currently teaching at the University of Virginia. “The argument, I think, is more about transparency and accountability. Congress should have its own accountable experts, rather than having to rely on the backroom briefings of the think-tank-of-the-month.”

There is no shortage of topics the American public can and should weigh in on. In the last two weeks of June alone the House Science Committee addressed climate change, energy-efficient transportation, hurricane research, competitive workforces, and how an Environmental Protection Agency program “fails the public.” Additional discussions with the public should include agricultural technology, alternative fuels, arms control, banking, communications, computer security, economic development, health, natural disasters, nuclear energy, nuclear war and weapons, oceanography, oil, gas, mineral resources, transportation, math and science education, the moon, Mars, and more.

The number of issues is staggering. Congress needs all the help it can get. A revitalized 21st-century OTA can employ the talents of new organizations that have mastered the art of creating and facilitating civic engagement, including America Speaks, Public Agenda, the Loka Institute, and the Jefferson Center.

“After engaging thousands of citizens on complex issues such as the D.C. budget, recovery planning in New Orleans, and California health care policy,” says Evan Paul of America Speaks, “we have seen that when decision makers are committed to authentic engagement, citizens can help them identify appropriate, nuanced, and publicly-supported policy solutions.”

In short, citizen participation works. It can break the special-interest deadlock, connect government to voters and shed light on important public issues. So why aren’t we mobilizing one of America’s greatest resources?

Darlene Cavalier ( is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader who studied the role of citizens in science policy as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Professionally she creates public science programs for Discover Magazine, Disney, and the National Science Foundation and is the voice of the


[1] Sclove, Richard. “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” Vol. 40, No. 19 (12 January 1994), pp. B1-B2.

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