17 May 2010
Technology assessment is a practice intended to enhance societal understanding of the implications of emerging scientific and technological developments, thereby ensuring their responsible implementation. Until 1995 the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) provided US Congressional members and committees with objective and authoritative analysis of complex scientific and technical issues, and this model was widely copied around the world. Although there have been attempts to revive this agency, it has not been successful and alternatives have been proposed. Recently, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has released a report defining the criteria for a new technology assessment model in the US (reported by Nature).
The report, Reinventing Technology Assessment: A 21st Century Model, compares the congressional option, which mainly involves an expert panel, with an alternative model involving a wider group of stakeholders. It emphasises the importance of ‘participatory technology assessment’ (pTA), a practice employed in Europe to allow lay people to express their opinions and influence policy making. It proposes new national expert-and-participatory technology assessment institutional network (Expert & Citizen Assessment of Science & Technology (ECAST) network), which would be an independent network of government and non-partisan policy research institutions, universities and science museums across the United States. The authors state that although the ECAST model is more favourable at present, both models have their pros and cons and they “can potentially function sequentially or co-exist complementarily”. In addition, they emphasise that the time is now right to attempt new technology assessment practices.