Magazine article The Futurist

The Need for a New Office of Technology Assessment

Magazine article The Futurist

The Need for a New Office of Technology Assessment

Article excerpt

Evaluating the potential impacts, of new technologies--rather than rejecting them outright--offers an answer to the Luddites' worries.

The U.S. Congress needs to evaluate emerging technologies in order to remove, unnecessary regulatory roadblocks and forestall, undesirable side effects of technology Legislation is frequently needed to protect and improve public health and sensitive environments, to strengthen the economy, and to correct inequities. And to legislate Intelligently, Congress must be able to critically evaluate the technical information that overwhelms it from business lobbyists, special interest groups, and agencies promoting various agendas.

Government therefore needs a dedicated source of objective information and policy-oriented analysis of technology-even more so now than when the U.S. Congress pioneered the field with the creation of the Office of Technology Assessment in 1972.

As in 1972, technology-related isssues today besiege Congress across the range of committee responsibilites--stem cell research and human cloning, missile defense, cellular telephones, genetically engineered foods, the Internet, and much More--because technology has become a central part of modern life.

People strongly believe in technology as the vehicle of progress and improved quality of life, and they understand that economic prosperity depends on continuing technical innovation. Yet there is growing indignation about some of technology's unanticipated downstream effects, so people are unwilling to leave all the important decisions to technical experts. Increasingly, politicians are expected to intervene.

Today, tension is growing between Congress and the White House: Conflicts over oil drilling in national reserves, arsenic in drinking water, and missile defense are causing congressional committees to question the completeness, quality, and evenhandedness of the information that executive branch agencies provide them.

It was just such tension in the 1960s that encouraged both the nascent environmental movement and the interest in technology assessment. Both contributed to the decision by Congress to create OTA, its own source of technical information, independent of agency bureaucrats and corporate lobbyists alike.

These tensions have never been unique to the United States. In the 1980s, legislators in many of the advanced industrial nations, acknowledging their deep respect for the reports generated by OTA, in turn provided themselves with an institutional source of research, information, and analysis about technological change. Britain, Germany, France, Denmark, The Netherlands, and Austria, as well as the European Community, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the United Nations, have created mechanisms for that purpose.

Some of these OTA-like institutions, such as those of France, Britain, and Germany, are much like specialized legislative committee staffs. Others, like those of The Netherlands and Denmark, are more like independent foundations but with the mandate to inform governmental policy making. …

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