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

Background

Throughout its history, three concerns have been of fundamental importance to the practice of PTA, namely:

� how to institutionalize PTA

� how to structure PTA organizations

� how to design and perform PTA projects

For example, the establishment of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1972 in the United States presented a real institutional innovation. OTA was meant to provide Congress with 'unbiased' information concerning, for example, the social and political effects of technologies. The establishment of a congressional TA bureau was a way to redress the imbalance between legislature and executive with regard to technological change, and thus it was an attempt to strengthen the representative model of democracy (Van Est and Brom, 2012). When during the 1980s several European countries created PTA institutions, the focus was also quite naturally on institutionalizing and organizing PTA. A key issue in this debate was how the relationship between the Parliament and the TA organization should be shaped to make it fit comfortably in the specific political cultures of each country.

In some countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, controversies over technologies were seen not only as a matter of power balance between the government and each parliament but also as a problem between the government, the parliament, and the wider public (Van Eijndhoven, 1997). As a result, in these countries public education and debate were seen as central to the mission of PTA, which led to early experiments in 'participatory' TA. In the 1990s, growing uncertainty and societal disagreements concerning pathways for technological innovation and economic development led to increased political interest in the use of participatory methods to achieve legitimacy of hard political choices that were made in situations where science could provide only soft evidence, and these choices would need legitimacy through public deliberation and consent (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1992). During this period, debates in the PTA community (facilitated for instance by the EUROPTA project) sought to consolidate practical experiences with public engagement and to arrive at mutual understandings of how to design and perform participatory TA projects (Joss and Belluci, 2002) – for instance, the role of project management, the choice of methods (Van Eijndhoven and Van Est, 2002), and the impact of participatory TA (Hennen, 2002).

At the turn of the millennium, however, the initial wave of 'participation optimism' at the political level was countered by demands for evaluative evidence of the positive effects of linking citizens' participation and stakeholder dialogues to processes of policy formation based on expert input. To maintain its political legitimacy and mandate, the PTA community thus became concerned with the visibility and impact of its own activities. In the TAMI project (Decker and Ladikas, 2004), this led to a wider reflection on the types of impacts that TA processes could have on different clients in different situations and how the institutional context of a PTA organization served to both enable and constrain the impact that TA could have on various publics (Cruz Castro and Sanz-Menéndez, 2005). Reflections on the practicalities of achieving impact in a world of distributed network communication led the TA community to focus on multiplatform communication (policy briefs, personal networking, websites, blogs, and media appearances).

The compounded output of these debates can all be traced in the so-called process definition of TA, which became standard after the TAMI project:

Technology assessment is a scientific, interactive and communicative process which aims to contribute to the formation of public and political opinion on societal aspects of science and technology. (Bьtschi et al., 2004: 14)

Today, we see a need to articulate the relevance of approaches to policy support developed within TA in a new and broader context of grand societal challenges. Here there may be a need for 'non-PTA' actors to take up and carry on the same practices. To this end, the openness of the definition of TA inherited from the TAMI project allows us today to apply the definition to a much broader field of organizations that work to provide similar forms of support to decision makers involved in S&T governance. The framework presented here can be used to clarify the institutional roles that various forms of TA or TA-like organizations can play within the governance of S&T.

 
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