History

What Is A Secretary Of The Future and Do We Need One?

Corporations hire experts to analyze trends and make predictions, so what if the government had its own secretary of the future?

It may sound a little sci-fi, but it's actually a perfectly valid and increasingly urgent question: Why doesn't the U.S. have a Department of the Future?

Today's Seeker Daily report addresses this curiously persistent issue, which is once again gaining traction again in public policy circles.

Forward-looking companies like Google and Intel employ dedicated "futurists" whose job is to take the long view on the fortunes of their institution. These analysts issue projections based on past company metrics, or the progression of certain technologies, to prepare for future contingencies. The U.S. government could potentially do the same, appointing a Cabinet-level Secretary to oversee a Department of the Future.

Actually, we used to have one, kind of. From 1972 to 1995, the nonpartisan Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) provided Congress with detailed reports on complex technical, environmental and social issues. The idea was to encourage better policy decisions by leveraging the power of objective and precise technical analysis.

RELATED: The Future is Now: Predictions Are a Problem

Alas, the OTA was abruptly defunded in 1995. According to critics of that particular decision, the OTA was killed off because its assessments were not always politically expedient.

For instance, when president Ronald Reagan proposed his "Star Wars" missile defense system in the 1980s, the OTA famously predicted that the project would be a "catastrophic failure." That assessment may have been prudent, but it was politically damaging for the administration.

With the OTA defunded, lawmakers turned to other reports and experts -- almost always provided by lobbyists and think tanks with agendas of their own. Critics contend that the loss of the OTA has resulted in increasingly dubious science in public policy. Consider the so-called climate change debate.

The OTA may be gone, but similar agencies in other countries have survived, including the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment (EPTA) and the British Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

With 21st-century technological advances coming in a breakneck speed, proponents are calling for a return of the OTA, perhaps in the form of an expanded Department of the Future.

-- Glenn McDonald Read More:

Marketplace: What if we had a Secretary of the Future?

Princeton University: Technology Assessment and the Work of Congress

New York Times: 'Star Wars' Runs Into New Criticism

Union of Concerned Scientists: Restoring the Office of Technology Assessment