Does the US need more public participation in assessing technologies and their potential impact on society, and informing decisions on their development and use?  Richard Sclove – author of a new report on technology assessment – thinks yes; but only as part of a new paradigm for technology assessment.  The report, published today by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Science & Technology Innovation Program, announces plans for a new Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology Network (ECAST), which would compliment expert input with participatory technology assessment to help inform decisions on developing new and emerging technologies.

I’m currently reading Robert Winston’s new book “Bad Ideas? An arresting history of our inventions” (slowly, as regular followers of 2020 Science will realize!).  Starting from the earliest indications of innovation amongst humans – from tool-making and the development of language – and ending up at the present day, he takes a hard look at what innovation has cost us over the ages, as well as what we have gained from it.  Reading it, one can’t help ask the question (as I suspect the author intended) – are we slaves to innovation, or can we control the process?

Technology Assessment in all its guises is a rejection of the former, and an attempt to embrace the latter.  It 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.

Back in 1972, the US Congress established the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to handle exactly this type of challenge.  For 23 years , OTA took a relatively formal and meticulous approach to assessing emerging technologies for Congress, based on expert input and analysis.  When the Office was closed in 1995, many considered it a blow to informed policy on science and technology within the US.  Ironically, as the US (along with the rest of the world) now squares up to some of the most complex science and technology-based issues and opportunities ever to face humanity, the tools that might help inform forward-looking decisions on how to navigate this technology-driven future are rather conspicuously lacking.

Into this void comes today’s report from Dr. Richard Sclove – founder and senior Fellow of the Loka Institute.  Sclove argues that we need to take a proactive role in determining the trajectory of technology for the good of society, but that a changing world demands new approaches – the OTA of 1972 (he suggests) would look conspicuously out of place in today’s fast pace, interconnected world.  Specifically, he argues that citizens need a place at the table – not instead of experts, but as a valuable voice alongside those of others in evaluating how technology-driven futures might most appropriately evolve.

Richard makes a strong case for what he terms participatory Technology Assessment – or pTA.  He argues that in a democracy, citizens should have the right to help decide how technology is developed and used; that citizens bring a range of social values to the table which are critical to determining technology trajectories and can help select potentially more sustainable ways forward; that engaging a broad base of people expands the knowledge base on which decisions are made; that citizen involvement can improve the effectiveness of decisions that are made, and help avoid costly mis-steps; and that pTA can even lead to expedited conclusions (although I am still struggling to see how asking more people for their perspectives and input can lead to a faster process).

The challenge is, how to make this work – and work in a way where citizens are fully engaged in the process of decision making, rather than just being a token presence.

Sclove quickly dismisses the option of re-instating the OTA (or a similar institutionalized body) as being outdated, unlikely to embrace pTA (the OTA did not engage citizens in technology assessment generally), and too focused on serving institutions within government rather than society as a whole.   He also challenges the suggestion that sufficient technology assessment is already carried out by a range of government offices, including the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

Instead, an alternative is offered – an independent network of institutions that work together to carry out a combination of expert and participatory technology assessment.

The result is ECAST – the Expert & Citizen Assessment of Science & Technology Network; a proposed independent network of organizations that can facilitate and conduct technology assessments that are not only responsive to 21st century challenges, but also make full use of 21st century opportunities.

As presented in the report, ECAST is in the initial stages of formation, supported by the Woodrow Wilson  International Center for Scholars, the Boston Museum of Science, the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, Science CheerLeader, and The Loka Institute.  However, there are clearly plans to expand this network.

The model as it stands is based on working through science museums (as a direct link to citizens), universities (bringing innovative ideas and research and analysis capabilities to the table) and non-partisan policy research organizations (providing policy relevance, and interfacing with decision makers).  While at an early stage of development, it clearly draws on the ideas of independence, input from experts and laypersons, and strong connections to policymakers (the report stresses the need for a physical presence in Washington DC).

Does the idea have legs?  I’m not sure yet, although I would be the first to agree that movement along these lines is desperately needed if the US is to develop strategic and sustainable technology innovation policies.  Looking to the future, it’s hard to justify letting innovation run its course without any form of intervention – if the recent economic crisis has taught us anything, it’s that.  As advances in science and technology, global communications and coupling between humanity and the environment in which we live continue to converge together, there is a social and economic imperative to help ensure technology innovation leads to long-term progress.  And assuming that everything will fall out in the wash without proactive intervention is both naive and short sighted.  The only real question is how to go about controlling the future.

I would argue strongly that, as stakeholders in the future, citizens have a right and a responsibility to be a part the process.  Richard’s proposal is definitely a significant move in this direction.  It’s not perfect – I have questions over the legitimacy of the process, sources of funding, the ability of the proposed network to make a difference, and translating academic ideals into practical reality.  Nevertheless, it’s an exciting and innovative step forward, and one that I will be following with interest.

I don’t particularly like the thought that we are slaves to innovation – I may be overly optimistic, but I would like to believe that humanity has the ability to choose future courses that are more likely to improve people’s lives.  But as our “inventions” get increasingly more sophisticated, it’s going to take more than luck and good intentions to ensure that what looks good on paper doesn’t turn out to be yet another “bad idea.” Hopefully, innovations like ECAST will help empower people to work together towards a future in which technology innovation is more likely to solve problems, than create new ones.


I feel I should add a disclaimer to this post, as Richard Sclove’s report was published by an organization I was a part of until recently – the Science & Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.  However, I was not in any way associated with the development and writing of the report, and indeed the first time I saw it was earlier today when it was publicly released.