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Tech Assessment Makes A Comeback

Government, independent networks aim to enhance public understanding of science, technology impacts

by Britt E. Erickson
May 17, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 20

Credit: Shutterstock
Face-to-face deliberations with groups of laypeople about science and technology are beginning to catch on in the U.S.
Credit: Shutterstock
Face-to-face deliberations with groups of laypeople about science and technology are beginning to catch on in the U.S.

After more than a decade of neglect, efforts to ramp up technology assessment—the practice of looking at the broad social implications of new science and technology—are under way in the U.S. Discussions are even starting to take place between the government and independent institutions on ways to integrate traditional models that incorporate expert technical opinions with emerging methods that consider the views of laypeople.

Technology assessment has been lagging in the U.S. since the Republican-led Congress at the time shut down the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995. OTA advised Congress on complex science and technology policy issues for 23 years. Several attempts by Congress to resurrect OTA have failed. Meanwhile, science and technology have moved on at a breathtaking pace.

To help fill the gap, the Government Accountability Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress, has been beefing up its technology assessment capabilities since late 2008. And the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) is exploring the use of expert networks to get advice from numerous science and technology professionals in ways that are potentially cheaper and faster than those used under the OTA model.

That’s a good start, but it’s not enough, say those who would like to see the U.S. adopt technology assessment methods involving public participation.

Momentum for technology assessment based on input from everyday citizens who are not experts in a particular topic, or participatory technology assessment, is just beginning to build in the U.S. To get the conversation started, a group of institutions, universities, and science museums, as well as a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader turned science policy enthusiast (C&EN, Jan. 12, 2009, page 56), have teamed up and proposed a network dedicated to the process.

Called Expert & Citizen Assessment of Science & Technology (ECAST), the project is envisioned to be a geographically distributed network of complementary institutions that are independent of government. Nonpartisan policy research organizations would help broadly disseminate information to decisionmakers. Universities would both help assess technology and develop new ways to assess it. And science museums would help educate the public and inform society in user-friendly ways.

The idea of such a network was the subject of discussion last month at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C., which will serve as the central coordinating node for ECAST. Stakeholders gathered to talk about a new report by the center’s Science & Technology Innovation Program.

The report, “Reinventing Technology Assessment: A 21st Century Model,” makes a case for the ECAST network, arguing that it would reestablish a national technology assessment capability that includes both citizen and expert components.

At the Wilson Center event, the report’s author, Richard Sclove, a pioneer of U.S. participatory technology assessment and founder of the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Loka Institute, pointed out that participatory technology assessment methods have been adapted, tested, and proven in the U.S. at least 16 times.

Examples of these projects include a 2006 Boston-area consensus conference on biomonitoring; a national effort on nanotechnology for human enhancement in 2008; and a global initiative called World Wide Views on Global Warming, which involved 38 countries, including the U.S. These projects “demonstrate that U.S. citizens are able and willing to participate effectively in such processes,” Sclove said.

Participatory technology assessment has been used much more often in Europe than in the U.S. When OTA shut its doors in 1995, “a lot of the methodological innovation or practice of technology assessment moved to Europe and Scandinavia,” said David Rejeski, director of the Science & Technology Innovation Program. Most of those European agencies were modeled after OTA, but over time, they began to also include participation by laypeople, he said.

From his experiences directing the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies for the past five years, Rejeski said it is clear to him that “there is an incredible appetite on the part of the public to get involved in the discussion about science and technology.”

From day one, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies held focus groups around the country to gain insight about what the public knows and cares about in terms of nanotechnology. Again and again, people would say “we don’t think the government should be making these kinds of decisions without our involvement,” Rejeski noted.

People asked hard questions such as “who is investing in the technology, who is promoting it, what are the benefits, what are the risks to public health and the environment, and do we have the right governance mechanisms and regulations in place?” Rejeski said. The scientific community and the government didn’t have immediate answers to these questions, he stressed.

But such questions need to be considered before a new technology is brought to market, Sclove contended. “The broad social repercussions of technological innovations are often not well understood until they become pervasively established in ways that can be hard to alter or undo,” he emphasized.

Participatory technology assessment “is especially important for new and emerging technologies where you don’t even know what questions to ask yet,” noted Paul C. Stern, principal staff officer at the National Research Council, which is part of the National Academies. But whether such a process will make a difference is unclear, he said. “You can run these things, but who is going to listen?” he asked.

Stern pointed out that the National Academies, which advises the federal government and the public on critical national issues, has a pretty good brand name, but it “still gets ignored frequently.” He explained that the National Academies establishes its value through peer review, careful selection of participants for its technical panels, and careful review of final reports—“all of that stuff that makes it slow and expensive but establishes credibility.”

Nonetheless, Stern recommended trying the ECAST concept. “Consider this a social experiment,” he said. “Invest in the experiment and invest in the evaluation of the outcomes.”

Others at the event also offered support for the network. Beth Noveck, U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer for open government at OSTP, said that the White House is committed to doing participatory technology assessment. “We know we need to do this,” she stressed.

OSTP is interested in finding middle ground, Noveck noted. She encouraged more conversations on ways to combine traditional technology assessment, such as the OTA model, with participatory technology assessment, as well as virtual expert networks comprising thousands of science and technology professionals.

Science and technology are transforming our world at ever accelerating rates, Sclove emphasized, citing as examples genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and geoengineering Earth’s climate. “There is an important societal need for understanding the broad implications of science and technology and making better decisions,” he said.


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