Home Sociology Policy-Oriented Technology Assessment Across Europe: Expanding Capacities
Public debate on S&T
Complaints about a low level of political as well as public debate on S&T issues are widespread in interviews and workshops. Generally, a 'systematic integration' of S&T issues in a societal discourse that includes all relevant groups (politicians, scientists and society) seems to be missing. Conflicting factors very well known from Western democracies, such as long-term S&T issues versus short-term political agendas, may have an even stronger influence in countries where democratic structures and cultures are still in transition. Other factors mentioned are clearly connected to the communist heritage in Eastern and Central European countries, such as a 'lack of a debate culture and debate traditions' (Kozarev, 2012: 37) (Bulgaria), or a general scepticism with regard to public debate rooted in the national political culture (Lithuania). Platforms for controversial debate on S&T issues (also in parliament) are missing, and the lack of transparency in decision-making structures – mentioned above – clearly leads to a restriction of debate to a closed circle of experts. The conditions for public debate on S&T are more favourable in Ireland and Wallonia. In Ireland, the interest of politicians in citizen participation has grown remarkably in recent years (O'Reilly and Adam, 2012: 159) due to current technological conflicts at the local and regional levels. In the ongoing political discussion about setting up a TA institution in Wallonia, public involvement is a central topic for those policy makers who are involved.
It adds to the notion of a lack of public debate that public interest in S&T issues is reported to be low in most of the countries. The latter notion is sometimes coupled with a well-known prejudice against laypeople who are regarded by policy makers as being 'emotional and incompetent' (Mosoni-Fried et al., 2012: 126). The notion of a relatively low interest in S&T is supported by European survey data (TNS Opinion
& Social, 2010, 2013): the citizens of the countries that were analysed here are less interested in S&T issues than is the average European: they less often read articles on science in newspapers, in magazines or on the Internet, with only Belgium and Ireland being above the European average (TNS Opinion & Social, 2005: 23, 2013: 6). Moreover, for a broad majority of respondents from the countries that we studied, the involvement of experts (scientists, engineers and politicians) is regarded as the most appropriate way to make political decisions in S&T.
The reported 'lack of debate' is to some extent modified by the fact that the country studies outline a broad range of contested S&T issues, such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), energy policy, waste management and food safety. Specific implications of technologies such as information and communication technologies (ICTs) or ethical concerns in controversial fields such as assisted reproduction were also debated within national contexts. Furthermore, locally or regionally embedded large-scale technological projects such as a dam or an oil pipeline became a subject of national debate. With regard to the development of citizen participation, it should be noted that there are different historical contexts in Western Europe as opposed to the post-communist countries (see Hennen and Nierling, 2014b).
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