4.1.6 Undertaking contemporary technology assessment
I have already indicated that macro and meso technology assessment is no less relevant for many commercial organisations than it is for governments, and the activity that follows will confirm this. However, for the remainder of this section I want to continue focusing on technology assessment in the public domain. The reason for this is straightforward – a wide range of material is publicly available. Consequently we can draw on this to explore the actual practice of contemporary technology assessment and the challenges and issues that may arise. My starting point is a brief review of the sources we are going to use.
Activity 11 Methods for technology assessment in commerce and industry
This is another activity where the aim is to develop your knowledge. Research the methods used for technology assessment by commercial organisations.
It may be that you already have knowledge of an example that you can draw on. If not you will have to start afresh.
You should aim to identify at least one method (but no more than two).
a) what your example is;
b) the method(s) used
c) who commissioned the assessment.
Nowadays technology assessment is often split between:
- agencies formally linked to government;
- universities or consultancy companies who are hired to carry out specific technology assesments;
- and bodies established to advise elected politicians.
An example of the latter is EPTA (European Parliamentary Technology Assessment) whose remit is to:
... advise parliaments on the possible social, economic and environmental impact of new sciences and technologies.
The common aim is to provide impartial and high quality accounts and reports of developments in issues such as for example bioethics and biotechnology, public health, environment and energy, ICTs, and R&D policy.
Such work is seen as an aid to the democratic control of scientific and technological innovations, and was pioneered in the 1970s by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) of the US Congress.
EPTA aims to advance the establishment of technology assessment as an integral part of policy consulting in parliamentary decision-making processes in Europe, and to strengthen the links between TA units in Europe.
It is noticeable that while EPTA traces it roots back to the OTA, it has learned from the problems the OTA had with its ‘ideal’ definition of what technology assessment is and has adopted a definition that reflects both the complexity of the environment in which the process has to take place and the numerous sources of data and information that are required to produce an assessment that is robust:
Technology Assessment is a concept, which embraces different forms of policy analysis on the relation between science and technology on the one hand, and policy, society and the individual on the other hand. Technology Assessment typically includes policy analysis, approaches such as foresight; economic analysis; systems analysis; strategic analysis, etc.
Explore the. The site provides access to current technology assessment reports produced by member countries and a database of past reports. It is regularly updated and there are also links to other technology assessment resources on the web, including those that are relevant at an organisational level. Pay particular attention to any trends or themes that might be suggested by the subjects or the assessments reported here. This activity is not compulsory, but if you do not do it you may find you are lacking material for future activities.
In the UK, the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) undertakes a technology assessment and informational role on behalf of UK Members of Parliament (MPs). Operating under the direction of a board of MPs and lords, POST has amassed a large online archive of reports and short briefing notes stretching back to 1995. These provide an interesting insight into the range of technologies and technology-related issues that POST has regarded as significant, and therefore requiring evaluation and assessment, since the mid-1990s. The next activity draws on this resource to enable you to conduct an analysis of this work.
Activity 13 A working example of technology assessment
Visit the POST website and follow the link to the publications section. There is a wide range of topics available on everything from oil rig disposal to the European satellite navigation system.
When reviewing material from POST or EPTA, of their sister organisations, and undertaking the task that follows, it is important to keep in mind the following: the purpose of these bodies is to advise parliamentarians - i.e. MPs, MEPs, and so on. They do not advise governments, who would typically commission consultants, advisers, think-tanks, or academics to carry out this type of work. In parliamentary democracies parliament is supposed to provide the checks and balances for the executive (i.e. the government). Consequently, organisations like POST are independent of government but play a crucial role in setting out the options, issues and areas of disagreement in the science and technology policy domains so that parliamentarians can effectively scrutinise government proposals, policies and activities. If you need more information on this dimension of the work of POST, EPTA, or so on, please refer to the relevant websites.
Select any two POSTnotes on technology or technology-related subjects that interest you from between the years 1995 and 2000. Do not choose any years beyond this. If you do not see anything that interests you I would suggest any of the following for this activity: #63 from 1995; # 110, 112, and 114 from 1998; #132 from 1999; #134, 136, 148 and 150 from 2000.
(If you have a strong interest in a non-UK-based approach, or a specific interest that is not represented on the POST site then either use the EPTA or WTEC website as an alternative, or another source of your choice.)
Now undertake a comparative analysis (i.e. compare and contrast) of the assessment, as set out in the POSTnote (or your alternative pre-2000 source) and what we now currently know about this technology. Pay particular attention to the background (i.e. what the technology is, does, for whom and in what context(s), the benefits and costs, and development trajectory and timeline (e.g. was it an emergent technology, under development or deployed) and where is it now.