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Home arrow Sociology arrow Policy-Oriented Technology Assessment Across Europe: Expanding Capacities

The emergence of a diverse policy support function

TA began as an interdisciplinary academic endeavour in the 1960s, at which time the long-term risks from indiscriminate use of modern chemical and nuclear technologies was becoming increasingly clear. Pitted against an establishment unwilling to admit to its own errors of judgement, TA first took the form of 'reactive' movement within academia, aiming to provide alternative evidence to support advocacy of mainly environmental protection and work-place conditions. This 'watchdog' role was expanded institutionally in the US at the national level when Congress established its Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1972. Here TA – or parliamentary TA (PTA) as it came to be known – would act as analytical support to congressional oversight of the societal opportunities and consequences of the technological development.

TA was one of several strands of new, interdisciplinary forms of analysis seeking to provide guidance for decision makers in advanced industrial societies. Environmental impact assessment, risk assessment, foresight studies, technology ethics and the cross-disciplinary field of science-and-technology-studies (STS) all have their historical roots and institutional raison d'être in the apparent complexity of governing modern technology and the loss of popular trust suffered by experts and industrial stakeholders. There are many overlaps between these traditions in terms both of pragmatics of method and outlooks regarding the science-society relationship. The lines between TA and non-TA are thus not sharply drawn, and the different traditions mentioned continue to enrich each other.

In Europe, the first proposals for establishing capacities similar to that of the OTA were made immediately after the first round of European expansion in 1973. The idea of a common European Office of Technology Assessment, however, proved difficult for the member states to swallow, and a centralized unit dedicated to technology assessment and foresight would not see the light of day until the establishment of the Institute of Prospective Technology Studies (IPTS) as a subunit of the Joint Research Centre in 1992. Meanwhile, the TA concept had more immediate rapport with the individual national parliaments in Western Europe and the European Parliament itself. Beginning in the early 1980s and inspired by processes of knowledge sharing within the Commission-driven FAST program, TA institutions were established in connection with parliaments in Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. An office for Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) was set up in connection with the European Parliament in 1987. At later stages, PTA organizations were also established in Belgium, Finland, Greece, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland while TA organizations, but without the 'P', established in Austria, the Czech Republic and within the Council of Europe have also been part of the landscape of TA in Europe (see also Chapter 1 and Chapter 2). Over the years, these TA institutions developed more 'proactive' roles for TA in supporting policy development. TA became closely linked with foresight studies and now shares the attempts to identify desirable pathways for development through forward-looking exercises. Some TA institutions took part in developing 'constructive' TA approaches to embed reflection on ethical, legal and social aspects (ELSA) in the development process itself. Other institutions developed methods for citizen participation and stakeholder inclusion in policy development for technological innovation and planning, precipitating the 'deliberative turn' in research and innovation policy. Today, TA thus walks on two legs: policy analysis and public engagement.

Since at least the turn of the millennium, the stakes of science and technology policy have been raised significantly. The perspectives of impending climate change and peak oil, which have been accompanied by increasing global competition in innovation, have driven science and technology policy towards more complex forms of reflexive governance. In this situation, the European TA field has increasingly sought to consolidate its methods and to provide 'strategic intelligence' for European policy makers acting at both national and European levels. The European Parliamentary Technology Assessment (EPTA) network was established in 1990 to enable cooperation among dedicated parliamentary TA units and units with similar goals. The IPTS has increasingly sought to orchestrate deliberation at European level between different TA and foresight organizations. And various parliamentary and non-parliamentary TA organizations have been increasingly involved in the European Commission's framework program for research, especially under those lines of research which are today known as Science with and for Society (SWAFS).

 
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