PACITA Conference, Prague, Czech Republic, March 13-15, 2013

by: Thomas Schmitt

The PACITA conference was a gathering of scientists, engineers and policy-makers in the field of Parliamentary Technology Assessment. Technology Assessment is a concept pioneered in the US in the 1970s as a research method by which to examine a technology’s impact on society, and to make recommendations for how society should react policy-wise to such technological introductions. Although largely dropped in the US (but not completely), TA was heavily adopted in Europe and continues to be an influential field today. PACITA was aimed at encouraging more TA activity in southern and eastern Europe, where it is not as prevalent as in northern Europe.

ConferenceTechnology Assessment and Culture

Interestingly, although TA has been largely absent from the public sphere since the closing of the Office of Technology Assessment in the 1990s, some institutions have continued with the practice, and in fact are developing more advanced methods that will likely again influence the practice in Europe. I had the pleasure to meed the Chief Scientist of the US Government Accountability Office, Dr. Timothy Persons. In his discussion session he revealed that his department would be publishing an ambitious blueprint of modern Technology Assessment methods. Overall he presented an excellent overview of the practice as it exists (in a fragmented way) today in the US. This was highly interesting for me personally as I would like to understand the TA institutional structure in the US, and where in this field a non-scientist policy-analyst could be useful.

Another session that I attended was by Dr. Sara Davies of the University of Copenhagen. It was entitled “Technology Assessment in a Deliberative Environment” and it explained the concept that democratic participation should be incorporated not only into the assessment of technology, but also the development of technology itself. This session in particular helped me to relate the conference to my policy studies. It was often discussed in our first-semester classes that the policy process requires a degree of democratic inclusion in order to gain legitimacy, but also to ensure effectiveness of a policy. Dr. Davies discussed how complicated it is to try and bring the public into such complicated process, and obtain useful feedback. There is also the complication of making the technologists and scientists themselves understand the public wisdom and incorporate the resulting input into the development process. This mirrored directly our classroom discussions of democratic versus technocratic governance. How much should the lay public be involved in processes that are only fully (or mostly) understand by the experts. Does this hinder policy (and in this case, technology) development, or does it bolster the process? What is the right balance of public input and expert decision-making? For the field of TA in particular, a further question was how to involve the public at early stages of technological development, when a technology has not yet become an everyday feature, or for which the public does not yet have an interest. Without early involvement, public wisdom and input is largely absent from the development and design of a technology, thus creating the possibility that a technology may enter the public realm, and upon something going wrong, face a shocked-public backlash that nullifies a once-promising branch of technological development. It’s possible that these issues could be mitigated by early public input in the research and development phases of technology. But again, questions arise on the value of such input at such early stages, when it’s not even yet known how the technology can or will be applied. Still, the idea represents a more holistic and cyclical approach to technological development, rather than the typical crude linear process that has heretofore existed. It suggests that society and technological development can have a more integrated relationship, offering smoother, safer transitions and better overall results. In the end, the discussion provided a perfect real-world example of a governance process of the type discussed in a theoretical-manner in the MPP program.

Overall, I was well able to relate the first-semester studies at the WBS to the Parliamentary Technology Assessment process. Multiple research institutes, such as Fraunhofer, were on-hand, demonstrating private-public relationships. These, as well as the presence of think tanks, academic institutions and government officials displayed the convergence of multiple spheres of influence and expertise that make up modern governance systems.