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Reinventing technology assessment for the 21st century

April 28, 2010

As the pace of changing technology quickens, a robust and open national capability for technology assessment – the process of estimating the broad social, ethical, legal and economic impacts of emerging science and technology – is critical and must include public participation to complement expert analysis, says a new report, Reinventing Technology Assessment: A 21st Century Model, released by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Among its recommendations is the creation of a new participatory institutional model: a nationwide Expert & Citizen Assessment of Science & Technology (ECAST) network.  ECAST combines the skills of nonpartisan policy research organizations with the research strengths of universities and the public outreach and education capabilities of science museums.  The Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University has joined the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center, Boston Museum of Science, and the Loka Institute as a founding partner of ECAST.

The U.S. Congress set a global precedent in 1972 when it created its Office of Technology Assessment, but then reversed course in 1995 by shutting it down.  In the meantime, 18 European technology assessment agencies are flourishing and have pioneered important new methods, including “Participatory Technology Assessment,” which has been adapted, tested and proven in the United States numerous times by university-based groups and independent nonprofit organizations.

The report explores a new Participatory Technology Assessment function in the United States.  By educating and engaging members of the public, Participatory Technology Assessment deepens the social and ethical analysis of technology and enables decision-makers to learn their constituents’ informed views regarding emerging developments in science and technology.

According to the report, there are compelling reasons to re-establish a national technology assessment capability, incorporating both expert and participatory methods.  The Internet and Web 2.0 capabilities can help a new technology assessment institution be more effective and cost-efficient than was previously possible, making it possible to organize such an endeavor on a distributed, agile and open basis, harnessing collaborative efficiencies and supporting broad public engagement.  Creating a modernized technology assessment capability also would align with Obama administration initiatives to make government more transparent, accessible and responsive to popular concerns.

Government policymakers, businesses, non-governmental organizations and the public need such analysis to capably navigate the technology-intensive world in which we now live.  “We style ourselves as living in a ‘technological society’ and an ‘information age,’ yet we lack adequate information about – of all things – the broad implications of science and technology,” says the report’s author, Richard Sclove, Ph.D., founder and senior fellow of the Loka Institute. 

“CSPO brings to this effort a tradition of engaged scholarship on technology assessment and leadership in public engagement with science and technology,” says CSPO co-director David H. Guston, who is its point person for ECAST.  Through its Center for Nanotechnology in Society, also directed by Guston, CSPO led the National Citizens’ Technology Forum – a participatory technology assessment conducted in March 2008 on the issue of nanotechnologies for human enhancement.  It is one of the primary exemplars of the kind of activity ECAST would generate.  CSPO was also one of five nodes in the World Wide Views on Climate Change – a global participatory technology assessment that tied into the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen in November 2009.

The Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University is an interdisciplinary intellectual network aimed at enhancing the contribution of science and technology to society's pursuit of equality, justice, freedom and overall quality of life.  CSPO creates knowledge and methods, educates students, cultivates public discourse and fosters policies to help decision makers and institutions grapple with the immense power and importance of science and technology as society charts a course for the future. For more information about CSPO, visit online at

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars of the Smithsonian Institution was established by Congress in 1968 and is headquartered in Washington, D.C.  It is a nonpartisan institution, supported by public and private funds and engaged in the study of national and world affairs.  The Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program brings new tools to bear on public policy challenges resulting from innovations in science and technology.  The report, Reinventing Technology Assessment: A 21st Century Model, can be downloaded at