Reinforcing communication between parliaments and TA
The scientific and political differential processes highlighted by the long-term and comprehensive approach of TA, on one hand, and the constraints of political systems based on representative democracy, on the other, makes it necessary to build permanent and consistent communication between TA organizations and parliaments. It is essential for TA organizations to be aware of the needs of parliamentarians and other policy makers, as it is important that policy makers know what technology assessment has to offer them. In that sense, the discussions that took place in Copenhagen and Lisbon during the Parliamentary TA Debates were a unique opportunity for the TA community to hear from the parliamentarians themselves about what their needs are with respect to policy advice on science and technology, as well as for the parliamentarians to get a full picture of what TA offers to policy-making processes and to them personally in their daily work and responsibilities. As such, the Parliamentary TA Debates can be considered as the first step towards an enhanced dialogue between the TA community and parliaments on the contribution of technology assessment to knowledge-based policy making in Europe.
Work still needs to be done to ensure that the nature, methods and effectiveness of TA are better and more widely communicated to policy makers, thus sensitizing them to the benefits of TA and enabling the adoption of TA practices more widely (see also Chapter 9 and Chapter 10). In countries where TA is less developed, the growth of TA practices is often slow, not because policy makers do not really want them, but because TA is not formally part of the decision-making process and may be hence seen as an unnecessary barrier to prompt policy making. Even in countries where parliamentary TA has been institutionalized, its relevance – or even existence – is not necessarily noticed by parliamentarians, which can lead to the closure of productive and successful TA organizations. This is what happened to the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which was shut down in 1995 due to budgetary constraints and bargaining without parliamentarians' noticing it. The same happened to the Danish Board of Technology (DBT) after the 2011 election, but in this case the DBT managed to be transformed into a non-profit foundation. According to Ulla Burchardt, who has chaired the German Parliament's Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment and now teaches at the Technical University of Dortmund, 'TA is something apart, for which members of parliaments do not receive any recognition for the next election'. Thus, even though a country may have a long tradition of TA, continuous communication with decision makers is necessary to anchor it in the policy-making landscape and to constantly show its added value to parliamentarians.
But building a common understanding of the role and value of TA for policy making requires more than explaining to parliamentarians what TA is and can offer them. Parliamentarians and other policy makers need to be sufficiently involved in TA activities so that they can take ownership of the results. For instance, parliamentarians may be involved in setting the agenda for TA activities, may be consulted in the course of the project or may pilot TA activities. In some countries, this link between TA and parliaments has been institutionalized, and if we refer to the TA models presented in chapter one, these institutions are based on strong parliamentarian involvement (see also Ganzevles et al., 2014). This is, for instance, the case of the French OPECST, where the parliamentarians themselves perform TA and their staffers have an auxiliary function; of the German TAB, whose steering committee is solely composed of parliamentarians; and of the English POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology), which is placed directly inside the parliament and works in close contact with MPs. But for many organizations that try to introduce TA in their country, there are no such formal links with parliament. Thus, such links need to be constructed and fostered so that the TA expertise is connected with the political realities and parliamentarians get the feeling of owning the TA products. For instance, the participation of parliamentarians from all over Europe in the PACITA Policy Hearing on Public Health Genomics was a unique opportunity for the involved parliamentarians to get a better understanding of what TA can bring them when they have to deal with controversial health technologies (see Chapter 6). This project and other similar projects provide evidence that the ability to build consistent communication channels between policy makers and other relevant actors (e.g. technical experts) is crucial for the effectiveness of TA in policy-making processes. And, on a more general perspective, it offers insights on the type of questions and issues that policy makers are likely to raise and have to face when considering complex scientific and technological developments, which is of great value for the deployment of further TA activities in countries or at the European level.