Reinventing Technology Assessment

By Sclove, Richard E. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Reinventing Technology Assessment

Sclove, Richard E., Issues in Science and Technology

As the pace of technological change continues to accelerate worldwide, the far-reaching social ramifications are frequently not understood until after new technologies become entrenched. Historically, this has resulted in important lost opportunities; significant economic, social, and environmental costs; and the channeling of societal development down long-term unhealthy paths. The U.S. health care system, for example, has long been skewed toward expensive high-tech treatment of illness to the relative neglect of preventive strategies.

Technology assessment (TA) is a practice intended to enhance societal understanding of the broad implications of science and technology (S&T). Its use creates the possibility of preparing for or constructively influencing developments to ensure better outcomes. From 1972 to 1995, the United States led the world in institutionalizing TA. Then Congress reversed course, closing its Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

Meanwhile, there are now 18 TA agencies in Europe. They have developed many promising practices, including highly effective methods involving participation by everyday citizens. Participatory technology assessment (pTA) enables laypeople who are otherwise minimally represented in S&T politics to develop and express informed judgments concerning complex topics. In the process, pTA deepens the social and ethical analysis of technology, complementing the expert-analytic and stakeholder-advised approach to TA that was used by the OTA.

One widely emulated European pTA method is the "consensus conference," pioneered in the late 1980s by the Danish Board of Technology (DBT), a TA agency that serves the Danish Parliament. A consensus conference provides a window into ordinary citizens' considered opinions concerning emerging S&T developments, while also stimulating broad and intelligent social debate on these topics. For each consensus conference, the DBT recruits a panel of about 15 laypeople that roughly reflects the demographic breadth of the Danish population. A carefully planned program of reading and discussion, culminating in a public forum with balanced expert and stakeholder testimony, ensures that the participants become well informed. After deliberations, the lay panelists present their findings and recommendations at a press conference in the Danish Parliament building.

Consensus conference reports are only advisory; they are not intended to determine public policy. They have, however, had a direct influence on policy in some cases. For instance, conferences held in the late 1980s influenced the Danish Parliament to limit the use of genetic screening in hiring and insurance decisions and to exclude genetically modified animals from the government's initial biotechnology R&D program. The Danish method has now been adapted and used dozens of times in at least 16 nations on five continents.

As their number has grown, European TA agencies have also become adept in sharing methods and results and undertaking selected TA activities on a collaborative transnational basis. During the past two decades, European TA has stimulated a number of European nations, as well as the European Union, to reach important and inventive decisions in areas such as promoting new green industries, regulating manufactured chemicals, adapting to climate change, and guiding the development of genetic technologies.

There are compelling reasons to reestablish a national TA capability in the United States, incorporating both expert and participatory methods. The Internet can help a new TA institution be more effective and cost-efficient than was previously possible. Creating a modernized TA capability would also complement Obama administration initiatives to make government more transparent, accessible, and responsive to popular concerns.

Learning from the OTA

Incorporating an oversight and prepublication review process that ensured nonpartisanship, OTA studies supplied extensive useful information.

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