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

Parliaments and policy advice

The increasing role of science, technology and innovation in Europe has major implications for parliaments with regard to technological developments and/or science-related policies. Parliaments have to regulate the development and use of technological innovations in order to mitigate risks or prevent abuses, but also they also have to set the framework for technological innovation to achieve specific policy goals – for example, health, environment or energy – or to meet public concerns such as security, economic and financial stability or employment. This requires parliamentarians, as well as other policy makers, to achieve a comprehensive view on the issues at stake, taking into account the ethical, legal and societal dimensions of science and innovation. For this, they need to rely on scientific advice that fits their needs and is not influenced by lobbyists and interest groups. In the 1970s and 1980s, members of parliaments made the first calls for TA in Western and Northern Europe. At that time, science and technology were subject to vigorous public debates (e.g. nuclear energy, nuclear proliferation, pollution and so on), and parliaments needed independent and comprehensive analyses and advice on policy options that were based on credible and scientific methodologies. Some 40 years later, these claims continue to be valid, even though the world we live in has changed. Public debate and controversies on science and technology are still present but seem to have waned in intensity (see also Chapter 2). However, the issues in debate are more global and complex, and information is moving very fast; together, these make the provision of well-informed and yet independent and structured policy advice critical. René Longet, a former member of the Swiss Parliament, who in the early 1980s initiated the process whereby TA was installed in Switzerland, stated: 'It is a democratic requirement to organize discussions on the ways to manage and guide technological developments for the good of society'.

The importance of scientific knowledge in policy making is of course not new, and it has contributed to the creation of modern states based on rationalization and bureaucracy (Ezrahi, 1990, Latour, 1993). However, the role of science in policy making has long been conceived in terms of a dichotomy between facts and values, wherein science was considered as the domain of facts and causal relationships and politics was the one of values and decisions. This rationalistic model of policy advice, however, comes up against the reality of contemporary policy making. Social studies of science and technology demonstrated that a strict dividing line between facts and values doesn't exist and stress the fundamental uncertainties in science and technology (Latour and Woolgar, 1979, Bijker et al., 1987). As a consequence, policy makers not only need to base their decisions on comprehensive and structured expertise but also need to broaden the scope of the expertise to define policies and regulations stemming from a constructive dialogue between politics, science, stakeholders and society. The rationalistic approach of policy advice – according to which scientists provide facts, politicians add values and bureaucrats implement policies – doesn't match current policy making anymore. What seems to be needed is a space where all involved actors (policy makers, stakeholders and civil society) can be brought together so that their perspectives can inform policy making on issues of science and technology. As stated by Felix Gutzwiller, a member of the Swiss Parliament, 'Technology Assessment is not only about getting expert knowledge, but also about revealing the views of stakeholders and of the general public through participatory methods'. The view of what TA can bring to policy making goes in line with the Beck (1992) and Beck, Giddens and Lash (1994) analysis on the so-called reflexive modernization, which stresses the need to open up political institutions to all actors of society. Policy advice as delivered by TA is not only a way to bring knowledge in parliaments but also a means to foster and facilitate dialogue among conflicting interests and values based on the best available evidence. In that sense, the TA institutions and practices that have emerged and developed in Europe may be said to showcase reflexive modernization processes at work (Delvenne, 2011).

 
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