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Why We Need Participatory Technology Assessments
Darlene Cavalier   Dec 22, 2010   Science Cheerleader  

2011 promises to be a year chock full of complex legislative debate 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 U.S. 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 U.S. legislators’ accessibility to the depth and breadth of a variety of outside voices:

1) Last week, 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) A few days earlier, 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…

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. - Richard E. Sclove

3) This month, Dr. Richard Sclove is publishing an article in Issues in Science and Technology that explains 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. In April, Dr. Sclove, the Science Cheerleader, the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, the Boston Museum of Science, and Arizona State University joined forces to launch a first-of-its-kind effort in the United States 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 with regard to public participation in tech assessment). I’ll have more to report early in 2011.

Let me emphasize that the last two steps above 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 for public participation; to bring the taxpayers 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 is every reason to believe that this will happen in 2011. Even with the changing of the guard in the House of Representatives.




It is beyond time for this kind of effort.  A major problem is the lack of knowledge in the general public - great efforts will be needed to bring the public to a place where informed decisions can be made.

This is cool. Not as much as I want, but a great step nonetheless!

Now, for the part that should draw stares:

The “Open Government Initiative” should be head by Julian Assange.

I’m not joking, we should hire him and put him in charge of that.

I hate to be pessimistic, but the bottleneck here is the IQ of Congress and their staffs.  Ideology is easy to comprehend, and good/evil is an easy standard to describe and act upon.  Instead, reality is rarely black and white, nor easy to comprehend or label - particularly with an abstract standard like ideology.  Financial regulation via derivatives is a good example, but another is simply creation vs evolution.  Even something as straight forward and scientifically validated as the theory of evolution gets blurred by legislators and their staff.  Frankly, it is laughable to think citizens who are experts in particular fields would be of much aid to legislators and regulators in the United States.  Ours isn’t a technocracy, but a representative democracy and a Republic, and as such we are flying blind when it comes to the nitty-gritty of regulating technological development.

Have you ever asked a legislator a technological question?  I have, and you might as well ask a grade schooler - what you get is magical thinking and biased judgments.  Yeah, citizen panels - that’s the ticket toward informed legislation on regulating emerging technologies in America!

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