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

Future perspectives for national TA capacities across Europe

Looking back in history, it becomes clear that TA must be understood as a reaction to the failure of a 'technocratic' concept of the relationship between science and politics dominant in the 1950s and 1960s, which relied on scientific knowledge as a safe and sufficient ground for 'rational' policy making. Thus TA, as it were, has always been taking into account the inborn uncertainty and underdetermined character of scientific knowledge with regard to complex practical (political) problems as well as the indispensable need to take into account different (and often conflicting) values, normative claims and expectations held by societal groups. The transparency of the TA process and openness towards the public, involving a broad scope of interests and values have been essential features of the TA concept right from its start.

Our country studies give quite clear indications that the context for TA initiatives (not to speak of processes of institutionalization) is in many respects different from the conditions that were prevailing when the first wave of TA institutionalization took off. In most of the countries that we explored, the concern is not about the further development of an already strong R&I system as it was in Western Europe when TA was established. It is rather about building new structures or about fundamentally reorganizing existing structures in R&I. In Eastern and Central Europe, the R&I landscape is in transition (as it is for other reasons in Ireland and Portugal), and it is less about 'protecting' societal needs and values against the dynamics of S&T. Instead, what is in focus is instigating dynamics and exploring innovation paths to keep up with globalization pressures and to generate economic growth. The social impact of S&T comes into perspective less in terms of environmental or health risks and ethical issues and more in terms of supporting societal welfare. Thus, TA is expected to provide support with strategic thinking on robust R&I structures, options for innovation policies and the evaluation of existing structures and practices. It is not by accident that whereas TA often is not very well known in the countries that we explored, 'foresight activities' have been widely promoted in some of them.

With the exception of Wallonia and Portugal, parliaments are not active in taking up TA as a means to strengthen their own role. In the beginning of the PACITA process, parliaments were often also not regarded by TA-interested actors as appropriate places for TA activities. This attitude has changed a bit in the course of the project. By now, all partners have increased the cooperation with national parliaments and established connections with national parliamentarians that support the vision of national TA capacities. Countries without established TA institutions have drawn the lesson from the practice of PTA countries as well as from the history of institutionalization of TA all over the world (Hennen and Nierling, 2015), namely that acceptance, acknowledgement and support of TA demand high quality TA activities, on the one hand, and distinguished individuals, mainly politicians who are interested in independent policy advice on technology issues, on the other. There are not too many potential political TA partners in the countries that we have explored so far, but already a few of them are able to do a lot.

Throughout our country studies, a lack of democratic structures in S&T policies is often perceived as well as a lack of communication and cooperation among relevant actors (academia, government, parliament and civil society organizations (CSOs)). TA then comes into perspective as a means of unbiased information of discourses (such as knowledgebased policy making or responsible innovation) or a platform to establish a democratic (public) S&T discourse (independent of reflections on its institutional setting).

In contrast with the conditions under which TA began, S&T is far less an issue of lively public discourse and activism. Whereas the present relatively low public engagement in S&T debates in Western Europe comes with an established system of professional and public authority bodies dealing with risk assessment and ethical issues, such structures are missing in the countries explored here (with the exception of Wallonia). For those examples of public controversies that were reported, it is on the one hand often stated that they are characterized by a lack of platforms for constructive interchange of actors including CSOs and laypeople. TA is expected to play a role in this respect. On the other hand, 'the public' often comes into focus with complaints about a lack of interest in, and knowledge about, S&T issues. As much as this might be in line with a well-known attitude of scientific elites and the prevalence of the so-called deficit model of public understanding of science, this might also indicate a specific problem connected with a lack of trust in democratic structures and with a distance to the political process that goes beyond the usual disenchantment with politics. In all the countries that we explored, there is, to various degrees, a lack of tradition in public debates on S&T as well as a relative lack of structural channels or platforms for public debate (including media and CSOs). Thus, 'stimulating public debate' as a mission of TA may gain particular importance here.

On the practical political implications of these features of a – so to speak – new 'TA habitat in the making', we see the following challenges in terms of practical expectations that TA has to react to:

Ongoing, often not well-coordinated activities of governments to build up or restructure the R&I system: In this respect, TA is often explicitly expected to contribute to strategic planning of the R&I landscape and the evaluation of R&I capacities.

Innovation policies to improve competitiveness in the context of

globalization and crisis ('economy first'): TA would have to position

itself with respect to these activities by providing support for

identifying socially sound and robust country-specific innovation

pathways ('constructive TA') and contribute to lower costs of

trial-and-error learning.

Poorly developed democratic and transparent decision-making

structures: TA could find a role here as an independent and

unbiased player able to induce communication on 'democratic'

structures in S&T policy among relevant actors.

The challenge of 'involving the public': In this respect, the motives of

democratizing policy making are often merged with 'paternalistic'

motives of 'educating the public' (media and laypeople). The

latter nevertheless may indicate a real problem of broad public

unawareness regarding the democratic relevance of S&T politics

and the extent to which TA's mission of 'stimulating public debate'

can adapt to that problem (without becoming 'persuasive').

In transparent decision making, lack of trust in democratic structures, lack of competences and bounded rationalities of relevant actors, lack of strategic long-term thinking: All this results in an explicit demand for 'knowledge-based policy making' in the context of which the (not very well-known) concept of TA is welcome as a means to underpin decisions with the best available knowledge in an unbiased manner. Specific ideas about how to institutionally build it into the existing system are, however, missing, and it might well be that in terms of institutional solutions none of the models so far realized in Europe might be appropriate.

In general, TA has to be responsive to the given policy context and the expectations and demands expressed in the countries that we explored. However, 'being responsive' to national expectations should not imply giving up a certain (normative) core of TA as a concept. TA risks becoming an 'empty signifier' if its proponents seek to respond to any and all demands for 'rational' decision making and planning expressed by policy-making bodies and authorities. TA as a concept implies the role of a critical observer of R&I policy-making activities, which necessarily asks for some institutional independence in order to provide space for reflection beyond short-sighted political agendas and openness to a broad spectrum of perspectives being applied in assessment processes.

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