Why I blog, and the Office of Technology Assessment

Via a post over on the Aetiology blog (and Retrospectacle) I happened upon a survey being taking about science blogging. It got me thinking a bit about why I’m doing this – aside from the masses of screaming groupies I have.

Aside from just being fun (I like to write), I set up this particular blog as a platform to practice communicating scientific topics. It’s a skill that really isn’t emphasized much in science education as far as I can tell, and regardless of where my career may go post-graduation I’m sure the ability to articulate scientific and technical topics will be beneficial to me.

In fact, I can see two different ways I could go with a career either during or after graduate school. Obviously, I could end up employed in a capacity where I’m officially “doing” science, which could be anything from “brewmeister” to curating a culture collection to academic research to being a lab grunt. I could also see myself pursuing a policy or science communication angle as well, though. This could be anything from Public Relations for a scientific or technical company to science writing to scientific advising…which brings me to the Office of Technology Assessment.

A post over on the “Denialism Blog” at Scienceblogs.com started a stream of “Bring Back the Office of Technology Assessment” posts around the net. Now, there’s a dream job. I would personally love to have a job like that. Make an enjoyable and comfortable living from whatever talent I have at explaining scientific and technical topics, and directly and substantially benefit my country in the process? Sign me up! Of course, even when the OTA existed, it only had a small number of employees, and presumably they were all Ph.D.’s with backgrounds in science and public policy, so the odds of me getting hired there (specifically) would probably be comparatively slim. Still, I can dream, and perhaps if we luck out and my wife (a Ph.D. Geologist with a background in borehole geophysics, petroleum geology, nuclear technology, and a variety of other areas – anybody out on the East coast in the general vicinity of Washington D.C. need anybody like that?…) and I have the opportunity to move somewhere with a good “science and public policy” graduate program I may have a chance.

My personal desires aside, though, if there’s one thing the people who are supposed to be running the country seem to really need, it’s rational science and technology information. Since the disbanding of the OTA we’ve had the DMCA and the costly and predictable abuses it brought (such as DMCA lawsuits over printer ink refills and replacement garage door openers), minimally-rational ideological fights over things like stem cell research and global climate change, panic and “security theater” over technically improbable-to-impossible “terrorist” threats (like the possibility that a terrorist will blow up a plane with a “liquid bomb” made of 4 ounces of baby food and shampoo, or “blow up” the fuel depot at JFK airport) (Mayor Bloomberg’s “STFU and GBTW” style of response to the panic was a glimmer of hope to me that there was some rationality left among my fellow human beings). I will refrain from picking on Ted “Series of Tubes” Stevens other than bringing this up as another example of lack of good information for policy-setting congresspeople. All this disruptive fuss, largely over ignorance and misunderstanding, which seems to be what the Office of Technology Assessment was intended to address. I would definitely agree that the OTA or something like it appears to be an urgent need – either that or Congress should quit playing around and just formally declare a science-boosting ‘War on Science’.

There are one or two things I’d like to figure out before I start mailing letters to congresspeople and presidential candidates though. For one thing – what would be the difference between the Congressional Research Service’s Resources, Science, and Industry division? Would one group be more focussed on specific policy implications while the other deals with “just the facts”? Also, the one legitimate-sounding complaint that I’ve seen in some of the newspaper articles on the subject is that it would often take longer to come out with a report on a subject than congress had (that is, congress would end up having to assemble a law and vote on it before the reports were completed). Should whatever takes the place of the OTA be re-designed to focus more on getting quicker answers? Like, maybe, hiring a bunch more people? Including, say, eager and capable grad-students…Okay, I’ll stop begging…

More to follow on this and related topics. Oh, and advice on successfully pursuing this type of career would be welcome.

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The Author is (currently) an autodidactic student of Industrial and Environmental microbiology, who is sick of people assuming all microbiology should be medical in nature, and who would really like to be allowed to go to graduate school one of these days now that he's finished his BS in Microbiology (with a bonus AS in Chemistry). He also enjoys exploring the Big Room (the one with the really high blue ceiling and big light that tracks from one side to the other every day) and looking at its contents from unusual mental angles.

2 thoughts on “Why I blog, and the Office of Technology Assessment”

  1. My Advice:

    Nill illigitimi carborundum

    Carl Sagan had a lot to say about this subject:

    We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

  2. All true and good advice, but by itself it’s not going to make me a wealthy industrialist and/or powerful policy-influencer…

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