I think a better title for this posting might have been Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (old movie title) as it’s got the right rhythm unfortunately the sentiment isn’t quite right (although quite close in some places) for this discussion about technology assessment along with the notion of unimpeded science ‘progress’.
Yesterday April 28, 2010, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) held an event to launch a new report, Reinventing Technology Assessment for the 21st Century by Richard Sclove. (It’s the second time that PEN has not offered a live webcast of one of these events and I hope this is due to technical difficulties rather than financial.) The description for the event and link to the report and the speaker’s presentation can be found here.
I’m going to briefly discuss Richard Sclove’s presentation slides (and will see the webcast, which hopefully has been made, when it’s posted in a few weeks). He offers a brief history of technology assessment (TA) in the US (an office was opened in 1972 and closed in 1995) and brief description of what it was supposed to accomplish. From the presentation,
Enhances societal understanding
of the broad implications of
science and technology, and
The presenter, Richard Sclove, also notes that there are now 18 TA agencies in Europe and makes the case that TA is important. What I found particularly interesting in the presentation is his focus on participatory TA. He’s not interested in simply reinstating the TA office in the US but in broadening engagement in the technology assessment process which is why his presentation and report use the word reinvention.
The suggestion for participation in TA is certainly in line with the current interest in involving citizens in all kinds of work, e.g. citizen scientists (an earlier blog posting) and citizen archivists (earlier blog posting) where volunteers work along aside professionals on certain projects. There is also a similarity to public engagement where experts and citizens meet to discuss emerging technology with the intent that the experts will take these meetings into account when decisionmaking. Sclove’s particular project (he is launching a project based on his report) seems to integrate the two approaches by formalizing the public engagement aspect beyond a series of meetings and/or workshops into a working relationship such as one between a citizen scientist and a professional scientist.
I find Sclove’s concept appealing and was made to reconsider it after reading Andrew Maynard’s (over at his 2020 Science blog) thoughts about the concept of TA. From Andrew’s posting,
It [TA] is based on the assumption that, if only we can get some insight into where a particular technology innovation is going and what the broader social and economic consequences might be, we should be able to tweak the system to increase the benefits and decrease the downsides.
As an idea, it’s an attractive one. Having the foresight to identify potential hurdles to progress ahead of time and make decisions that help overcome them at an early stage makes sound sense. If businesses wants to develop products that are sustainable over long periods, governments want to craft policies that have long-reaching positive consequences and citizens want to support actions that will benefit them and their children, any intelligence on the potential benefits and pitfalls associated with a new technology is invaluable to informed decision-making.
The trouble is, making sense of a complex future where technology, social issues, politics, economics and sheer human irrationality collide, is anything but straight forward.
It’s the dynamic nature of an emerging technology, as he points out, that makes all of the decisionmaking and regulatory development so very challenging. Andrew also contrasts the traditional TA concepts with the ideas in a book (Bad Ideas? An arresting history of our inventions) by Robert Winston who cautions against society’s blind assumption that the adoption of an emerging science or technology is both inevitable and good. You can certainly see that attitude in some of the information about nanotechnology. Even Andrew Schneider (earlier posting discussing the contretemps) who has roundly criticized the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s efforts assumes that nanotechnology’s adoption is inevitable.
Do read the posting and the comments. Richard Sclove dropped in and I offer this one excerpt from his comment,
Early on your mention that technology assessment (TA) “is based on the assumption that, if only we can get some insight into where a particular technology innovation is going . . . we should be able to tweak the system to increase the benefits and decrease the downsides.” As written, that is exactly right. Although if you read my report carefully, you’ll see that I’m interested in seeing if we can push the capability of TA (both participatory and not) to move beyond only studying one “particular technology” at a time to also considering the synergistic interactions among complexes of (seemingly unrelated) techs.
I noticed that nowhere in Sclove’s full comment does he address the much thornier issue of whether we must adopt an emerging science or technology simply because we can. You can learn more about Sclove’s project, the Expert & Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) project here. I notice the founding partners include PEN and the Science Cheerleader which has been mentioned here from time to time (notably in the posting about citizen scientists).