IS THERE A PLACE in the Congress for a scholarly, apolitical enclave dedicated to trying to foresee the rough and the smooth of new scientific and technological developments?
The question arises because, since 1973, Congress has been equipped with such a "think tank" style operation -- the little-heard-of, though potentially valuable, Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). In its relatively short existence, however, OTA has been afflicted by internal squabbles, charges of political misuse of its ample staff resources and a good deal of confused contention concerning what this peculiar organization is supposed to do for its master, the Congress.
In the past few days, OTA's status was further muddled when the man who was supposed to salvage it from a poor start, Director Russell W. Peterson, suddenly announced -- 13 months into a six-year appointment -- that he has succumbed to an irresistible offer to become president of the National Audubon Society.
It may be, of course, that the Congress' yen for politically unflavored data collection and fortune telling is well satisfied by its own committee staff resources and the backup services within the Library of Congress. There is, in fact, no precise demarcation between OTA and the many other study-producing entities on Capitol Hill.
Nevertheless, what masde OTA so appealing is that, in a period of general unease about the risks and benefits of applied knowledge, here was an organization responsible for providing disinterested expertise to the Congress. It did this by harmonizing the talents of its own 100 or so staff specialists with experts in academe, industry and government. The quality and utility of the results, embodied in scores of reports numbering thousands of pages, are difficult to assess. But, not too many months ago, a subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee took a long and close look at OTA and concluded that the agency is useful and merits congressional support.
Mr Peterson's departure coincides with -- and certainly wasn't impeded by -- another eruption of squabbling among OTA's board of congressional overseers. The issues: long studies versus contracted-for studies, and similar items of such triviality that the maturity of some of the disputants might be worthy of study.
We don't doubt that Congress can get along without an Office of Technology Assessment. But we think that in dealing with innumerable technological complexities -- the list ranges from radiation safety to off-shore drilling -- it quite likely could get along better with a well-functioning technology-assessment service.
It is therefore to be hoped that a new director will be swiftly appointed and that OTA will emerge from a troubled infancy to fulfill its potential in the legislative process.