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Where is the scientific wisdom to guide Congress on key issues?

Is there a dire shortage of scientific wisdom to guide Congress on decisions on important issues?

There is no shortage of pressing technical and scientific issues on the agenda before Congress.

Energy policy, airport security, global warming, nanotechnology, pollution, troop safety equipment and the future of the space program are just the beginning of the list.

But is there a dire shortage of scientific wisdom to guide decisions on the issues? raised the question in an email last week. That’s the organization co-founded in 2008 by Shawn Otto of Marine on St. Croix, Minn., to thrust science issues into the national dialog.

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We’re in clear trouble if the measure is the number of Congress members who are formally trained scientists. Of the 535 members, there are three physicists, one chemist, six engineers, and one microbiologist, according to the Congressional Research Service’s report, “Membership of the 11th Congress: A Profile.”

At least there are more scientists than broadcast personalities – just barely more. CRS counted eight of those: two radio talk show hosts, a radio/television broadcaster, a radio broadcaster, a radio newscaster, a television reporter, and a television commentator.

The scientists are outnumbered, though, if you add the others from media or entertainment: two professional musicians, a semi-professional musician, a screenwriter, a comedian, a documentary film maker, a major league baseball player, and an NFL football player.

To be sure there are other members who have studied their share of science, including an astronaut and 27 health practitioners: 16 medical doctors, two dentists, three nurses, two veterinarians, a psychologist, an optometrist, a clinical dietician, and a pharmacist.

But ScienceDebate — along with the Union of Concerned Scientists  and dozens of other groups — argues that we urgently need a science advisory body to give the members high-quality, non-partisan information on the issues of the day.

Those groups are calling for Congress to revive the Office of Technology Assessment, which was closed 15 years ago to save money. ScienceDebate says that was a pound foolish decision because high-quality advice “could save billions by preventing costly policy or spending errors that are not informed by the best available science.”

Union of Concerned Scientists offered this example of how we’ve squandered money without the OTA’s guidance: As far back as 1980, OTA recommended that the United States improve its disaster preparedness by emphasizing self-help. Studies cited by OTA showed that people prefer “rebuilding advice and supplies to extensive mass shelter or temporary housing.” Years after the OTA was shut down, FEMA trailer contracts wasted tens of millions of dollars during the disaster response to Hurricane Katrina.