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Mobilizing TA for grand challenges – the PACITA Project

The PACITA (Parliaments and Civil Society in Technology Assessment) project was set up under the 7th European Framework Program for research and development. It ran from 2011 to 2015 and was coordinated by the Danish Board of Technology. Working under the assumption that TA will need to adapt to the change towards the internationalization of science, technology and policy, the project's overarching goal was to mobilize and expand the European TA community through processes of mutual experimentation and learning. Through such expansion, the working hypothesis of the project was that the TA field can grow into a Europe-wide support system for broadening the knowledge base of policy making in Europe. Helping to spread nationally based arrangements for providing TA services across Europe would serve the triple purpose of supporting national parliaments and governments, supporting and connecting national democracies across Europe in transnational dialogue and collaboration and helping to strengthen the bottom-up dimension of European democratic governance. We call this distributed support system 'cross-European TA'.

The PACITA strategy for an expanding TA field was bound up with a strengthening of national democratic institutions. In the four-year course of the project, it gathered a group of fifteen partner organizations from different European countries in collaborative processes, which were at once linked to European agendas and based on national debates. Among these partners, some are established TA organizations connected to parliaments or otherwise formally organized to support national policy (the partners from Austria, Belgium (Flanders), Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Switzerland), while others are organizations with closely related missions interested in developing locally appropriate institutional models for TA (the partners from Belgium (Wallonia), Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland and Portugal). Among the members of this group, enough diversity with regard to national settings was represented that the outcome of the project would be applicable across EU28 and the group of associated or candidate countries.

Main findings of the project

The project pursued four operational aims, the outcomes of which are documented in this book. The first aim was to map and conceptually categorize existing PTA institutions and practices. The second aim was to help guide countries, which as yet had no such dedicated TA functions, in establishing TA institutions appropriate for their specific culture and settings. The third goal was to showcase and give hands-on experiences with the praxis, methodologies, outcomes and social value of collaboration among TA institutions across Europe. Finally, the fourth goal was to begin the process of building up mutual capacities for training and communicating TA practice and results in order to build a cross-European TA capacity of infrastructures and human resources.

To what extend are the goals of such a project realistic? It is of key importance to assess the contributions as well as the limitations of what has been attempted. A key issue in this regard is the question of methods and how well they travel from their original national contexts to other cultures and to cross-national collaborations. For example, PACITA carried out a process of stakeholder deliberations on the future of ageing in which national responses were formulated to strategies developed at European level (see Chapter 7). Here, it was clear that the national processes in and of themselves were both politically useful and perceived as legitimate by the participants. And from a trans-European point of view, the simultaneous but nationally particular formation of ideas for policy presents a potentially highly valuable addition to the general European policy-formation process. But we must acknowledge at the same time that without a clear institutional mandate within the overall process of European policy formation, the recommendations produced by such nationally based bottom-up processes risk drowning in the whirlwind of European debates. Similarly, institutional issues produced profound challenges to an experiment in which the PACITA partners orchestrated a cross-national Future Panel. The Future Panel is a process in which parliamentarians from across the political spectrum take part in a common process of learning and forming opinions about complex issues that arise from science and technology. In this case, a cross-national panel would gather to learn about and debate the possible contributions of advanced genomics research to public health care in the future (see Chapter 6). Here again, while those parliamentarians who did take part were positively surprised and enthused by the spirit of deliberative inquiry that is embodied in the Future Panel, it was the lack of a common mandate from the involved parliaments which proved to be a stumbling block in the recruitment of parliamentarians for participation.

The benefits, however, should not be underplayed. A third PACITA experiment focused on public engagement and gathered citizens in different European member states in citizen summits to deliberate on the complex trade-offs involved in policy for sustainable consumption (see Chapter 8). This experiment provided strong indications that, when applied to the cross-European level, a deliberative take on public engagement seems to be a viable strategy for squaring the circle of democratic involvement in centralized European policy making. Simultaneous national processes in which citizens are briefed on the best available knowledge and afforded time to deliberate in socially diverse groups provides high-quality, nationally founded, but still 'European' inputs to the European policy process.

Looking at the method dimensions, the PACITA model of bottom-up development of cross-European TA that organized and operationalized by existing and emerging TA institutions and that was supported by the European Commission seems to be a viable pathway for sowing the seeds of cross-European TA. The outcomes of the project are surely tangible and promising. But at the same time, the PACITA project covered only fifteen countries and, as such, was an experiment, though a successful one. Ultimately, the idea of a Europe-wide implementation of TA must be taken up politically and given a mandate in order for cross-European applications of TA methods to really work.

The PACITA project may be said to have expanded European TA capacities in at least four different dimensions:

Geographically: We have aimed at expanding the capacity and formal institutionalization across Europe and have succeeded in doing that perhaps more importantly, we have also sown seeds for further expansion in the future.

Collaboratively: Developing cross-European TA for the benefit of Europe as well as for the member states has been a core aim of PACITA, and we have definitely proved that there is a large need for this and that there are big potentials in developing a truly European collaborative space for TA.

Conceptually: The background, context and function of existing TA institutes have been scrutinized intensely with important new insights in the role and function of TA as a result.

Conceptually: The background, context and function of existing TA institutes have been scrutinized intensely with important new insights in the role and function of TA as a result.

Politically: At two parliamentary meetings with representatives from the EPTA and PACITA countries and beyond, it was clearly stated by the MPs that TA has a very important role to play for EU, Europe in a wider sense, and for the EU member states. A clear call has been made for a strong Commission engagement in widening the TA landscape in Europe and in providing options for new countries to take up TA.

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