The Sciences

A Little Respect: Involving Citizens in Technology Assessment

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyApr 29, 2010 8:24 PM


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This is a guest post by Darlene Cavalier, a writer and senior adviser at Discover Magazine. Darlene holds a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader. She founded and cofounded to make it possible for lay people to contribute to science.

Happy Thursday. Very pleased to be filling in for Sheril this month. These are big shoes to fill, to say the least. During my time with you, I hope my writings provide a bit of inspiration, provocation, or, failing that, some entertainment to brighten your day. All I ask in return is that you keep doing what you do so well here: share your ideas and comments. Some of you (two, three?) may know me as the Science Cheerleader, a persona who advocates--and creates mechanisms--for public participation in science and science policy. These are broad terms with multiple definitions, depending on the author's intention. Let's dive right into one of this author's intentions: to create a way for citizens and experts to participate in assessments of emerging technologies. Citizens, your time has come! On this day in history, Aretha Franklin released her hit song, Respect. And on THIS day, respect for your insights, values, concerns, and expertise, are the tenets of the breaking news I'm about to share.... Yesterday, I spent the afternoon at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., to help release a report and a call to action for the creation of a national participatory technology assessment network. The report and network were initiated by me, so I'm clearly biased. What originally began as Science Cheerleader's effort to help reopen the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (an agency, shut down in the 90's, that helped Congress better understand policy implications of complex, science issues), has evolved into this reincarnation. Why? It became apparent after two years-worth of numerous discussions with a variety of stakeholders, that reopening the "old" OTA would leave little, if any, opportunities to invoke contemporary applications critical to 21st century governing: decentralized expertise (tapping the knowledge of scientists across the nation) and citizen engagement, to name but two. The report, Reinventing Technology Assessment: A 21st Century Model, was authored by my partner in crime, Richard Sclove, the founder and senior fellow of the Loka Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making science and technology responsive to democratically decided priorities. The report emphasizes the need to incorporate citizen-participation methods to complement expert analysis. Government policymakers, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and citizens rely on analysis to capably navigate the technology-intensive world in which we now live. The new model, described in the report, would provide opportunities to generate input from a diverse public audience, while promoting societal discussions and public education. This redefines the technology assessment model by recommending the formation of a first-of-its-kind U.S. network to implement the recommendations: Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST).

[Meet the founding partners of ECAST: Pictured left to right: Mahmud Farooque, AZ State Univ.; David Sittenfeld, Boston Museum of Science; Larry Bell, Boston Museum of Science; David Rejeski, Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars; Richard Sclove, Loka Institute; Darlene Cavalier, Not pictured: David Guston, ASU; David Rabkin, MoS.] The Wilson Center's press release summarizes the need for this new paradigm, nicely:

While Congress was shutting down the OTA, Europe was busy creating agencies of science and technological assessment. Today, 18 such European Technology Assessment agencies flourish. Europe has pioneered important new methods, including Participatory Technology Assessment (pTA). By educating and engaging laypeople, pTA is unique in enabling decision-makers to incorporate constituents’ informed views on emerging developments in science and technology. pTA also deepens the social and ethical analysis of technology. European pTA methods have been adapted, tested, and proven in the U.S. at least 16 times by university-based groups and independent nonprofit organizations. “We style ourselves as living in a ‘technological society’ and an ‘information age,’” notes report author Dr. Richard Sclove, “yet we lack adequate information about – of all things! – the broad implications of science and technology.” As the pace of technological change quickens, and the Obama Administration moves forward on its Open Government Initiative, the time is ripe to institutionalize a robust national TA capability which incorporates both expert and participatory TA methods. The Internet and social networking capacities make it possible to organize such an endeavor on a distributed, agile and open basis, harnessing collaborative efficiencies and supporting broad public engagement. “In the 15 years since OTA was closed, TA has progressed significantly in Europe. It is time for the U.S. to institutionalize a serious, continuous and nonpartisan capability to assess the broad social, ethical, legal, and economic impacts of emerging science and technology in areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and earth systems engineering,” said David Rejeski, who directs the Wilson Center program.

The ECAST network has already expanded to include many additional museums, universities, and strong interest from government agencies and the White House. Personally, I'm hopeful non-traditional actors also step up to the plate. Imagine for a moment a WILD extension to the variety of necessary deliberation models detailed in Sclove's report (including--but not limited to--consensus conferences and citizen juries). What if McDonald's, Starbucks, local bookstores, community centers, and hell, even the NBA, participated in, say, a Day of Deliberation on Synthetic Bio? (A twist on a novel proposal by James Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman.) Now imagine a dotted line from those conversations to Congress, and the White House, among many others. Yes, it's pretty complex, embedded with a host of complicating factors, and smacks of naivety. It's also crucial to our lives and those of our kids. And, as tax-payers (funders of much of the research behind these emerging technologies), you are more than entitled to become informed and have a say, no? Food for thought. Fire away!

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