Why we need participatory technology assessments

Participatory technology assessment (PTA) enables people who are otherwise minimally represented in science and technology politics to develop and express informed judgments concerning complex topics. (Dr. Richard Sclove in the current issue of Issues in Science and Technology.)

2011 promises to be a year chock full of complex litigation over the policies of emerging technologies like synthetic biology and geoengineering to name only two. Fortunately, three elements are brewing to create what might just be a perfect storm in terms of getting all the right folks to huddle together so the best policies are set forth.

I’ll back up a bit. The Federal government cannot be an expert on all things so when complex matters arise (particularly ones tied to emerging technologies like synthetic biology and geoengineering)  it  seeks  outside expertise to inform its decision-making. How so? By convening Federal Advisory Committees and by announcing public comment opportunities in the Federal Register.

Three efforts are underway to broaden legislators’ accessibility to the depth and breadth of a variety of outside voices:

1) Today, the White House released long-awaited “scientific integrity guidelines” to help government scientists feel safer about speaking up on scientific matters. If a government scientist, working at, say, the Environmental Protection Agency, smells something stinky about, say, a report on fracking, he/she should feel free to speak up without worrying about being fired or stifled. The Scientific Integrity guidelines were designed to move science in that direction. Freeing up government scientists to speak is only part of the solution and The White House recognizes this, so….

2) Earlier this week, the White House announced an effort to work with the public to find creative ways to tap the expertise of what’s being called “citizen experts” or members of the public who possess scientific and technical expertise. The Open Government Initiative and the General Services Administration, launched  “a public consultation (through January 7, 2011) to obtain input on a design concept for a government-wide software tool and process to elicit expert public participation. In addition to making government more open and accountable to the public, this also advances the Administration’s objective of strengthening problem-solving network to improve outcomes and reduce costs. The administration anticipates adapting already available tools and know-how to achieve the goal of getting better expertise faster and more openly.” Better, but still lacking. So…

3) This month, Dr. Richard Sclove (left of me) writes in Issues in Science and Technology, why NOW is the time to formalize a mechanism to invite non-experts to both learn about and weigh in on the societal implications of emerging technologies and their related policies. Check out his essay: Reinventing_Tech_Assessment_-_Sclove_in_Issues_in_S&T_-_Fall_2010-1 In April, Dr. Sclove, the Science Cheerleader,  Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Boston Museum of Science, and Arizona State University joined forces to launch the first-of-its-kind effort in the U.S. to realize this vision: Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST). Read more on this, here. ECAST is taking the best of the now-defunct Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and is spicing things up by borrowing best practices from successful participatory technology assessment activities in the European Union (they’re a full 15 years ahead of us w/re to public participation in tech assessment). I’ll have more to report early in 2011.

These last two points are meant to complement–NOT replace–the traditional methods of convening advisory committees and posting opportunities for public comment.

Now IS the time to open doors to public participation; to bring the tax payers and voters into the deliberations, both so we can become informed on the issues and so we can weigh in on the societal implications of emerging technologies. There’s every reason to believe this will happen in 2011. Even with the changing of the guard in the House.

Cheers!

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  • One might argue that the increased “common man” rhetoric of the Tea Party influenced Republican party will make participatory tech assessment even more likely under the Republican House, even if the reasons for doing so are not those advocated by Sclove, etc.

  • Josh,
    I’m more than a little concerned that particular approach will spoil the beauty of this. Although, I’m confident some Rs are sympathetic to–and supportive of–our approach.
    That said, one of our partners, David Guston, wrote about the R’s recent (clever-yet-warped) attempt at participatory democracy. http://www.cspo.org/soapbox/view/101210P6OT/golden-fleece-20/ YouCut encourages the public to search for keywords (such as “social” and “media”) in the National Science Foundation’s online database of grant applications to help Congress make recommendations to slash the NSF’s funding. Gulp.