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Participation in Technology Assessment

di Giuseppe Pellegrini [1], 20 Ottobre 2008

Giuseppe Pellegrini:
Could we start by talking about participation and technoscientific innovation in Switzerland considering the activities of your Centre?

Sergio Bellucci:

The justification for putting elements of participation in Technology Assessment is three-fold. Firstly, it helps to take into consideration the knowledge input from those affected. This is especially important, as it comprehensively informs decision makers and makes them aware of the whole spectrum of a problem. Secondly, it allows the interests and values of those affected to be taken into consideration. This is especially important for decision making if it is to be considered legitimate, and for gaining social acceptance. Thirdly, participation creates an arena where conflicting claims can be reconciled, and where new solutions can be developed and deliberated upon.

Giuseppe Pellegrini:
You are the Director of the Suisse Centre for Technology Assessment [2], could you tell us the story of this Agency?

Sergio Bellucci:
As in many other European countries, the Swiss Parliament has set up a Centre for Technology Assessment, referred to below as TA-SWISS. This Centre has been in existence since 1992 and is attached to the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. TA-SWISS activities are decided by a steering committee, composed of scientists, politicians, representatives of interest groups and members of the public administration. At the core of TA-SWISS activities lie interdisciplinary studies aimed at better understanding the impacts of new technologies on society and environment in order to make policy recommendations (classic TA). These studies are undertaken in three priority domains: life sciences and health, information society, and mobility. Since 1998, TA-SWISS has been undertaking participatory projects. It started with the PubliForums, inspired by the consensus conferences model developed by the Danish Board of Technology. And some four years later, in 2002, its "methodological toolbox" was supplemented by PubliFocus, adapted from the focus group method initially developed for marketing purposes and widely used in the social sciences.

Giuseppe Pellegrini:

The Suisse PTA has developed two specific methods for participation: PubliForum and publifocus. Are there some main features of these methods that you can point to, particularly if they are producing specific effects?

Sergio Bellucci:
PubliForums provide a platform on which the dialogue between science and the general public can be promoted. There results are then primarily directed towards the political sphere, but also affect other actors such as science and industry. Approximately thirty volunteers - men and women, both young and old, from different professions and coming from all parts of the country - form a Citizens' Panel. This lay panel takes an in-depth look at a particular area of technology.
Over two preparatory weekends, the panel members get to know each other. They are provided with information material by the organizers and decide on which questions they want answering by the experts. On the basis of a list of specialists who are willing to place themselves at the Panel's disposal, the Panel chooses around 20 experts who are to answer these questions.
The actual PubliForum usually lasts four days. During the first two days, experts and Panel members meet to discuss the questions posed. These hearings can be attended by all who are interested. After the discussions with the experts, the Citizens' Panel retires to make its evaluation and decisions: on the basis of the information and answers received, it draws up a report, which is then presented to the general public on the fourth day. This report represents the Citizens' Panel's view on the problem area addressed and makes recommendations for action for decision-makers in politics, science, business and administration.

Inspired by the focus groups method, PubliFocus represents another procedure aiming at integrating the views, hopes and fears of those affected in the Technology Assessment process. In general, four to six meetings are organized in different cities or regions. Each meeting is attended by about ten participants, who, under the supervision of a moderator, hold discussions based on a specific set of questions determined beforehand. The participants will have previously received written information on the theme under discussion and, in an introduction to the meeting; one or two experts briefly present the issue at stake. Based on this elementary information, participants thus have two hours to exchange opinions and ideas.
Each group is constituted according to predetermined criteria, in order to find out how different groups consider a same issue. For instance, one might constitute groups using geographical criteria (linguistic regions, cities, rural areas, etc.), gender criteria or religious criteria. One might also build groups in which only those people directly concerned are invited to participate (for instance Parkinson's sufferers when discussing stem cells research).
The opinions and arguments voiced during these discussions are then analysed so as to highlight the attitudes and moral judgments of the population with regard to the issue at stake and synthetised in a report distributed to decision makers. In this sense, the PubliFocus does not go as far as the PubliForums, as the participants only discuss an issue, without formalizing their own recommendations. PubliFocus represents a type of qualitative survey, aimed at better understanding the opinions and the arguments leading to these opinions, whereas the PubliForum is a creative process, in which a group of people formulates opinions and tries to find solutions in the form of recommendations.

Giuseppe Pellegrini:
Finally would you talk about the political role of PTA?

Sergio Bellucci:
In essence, Technology Assessment has a strong political dimension, as it is intended to counsel policymakers on new technologies and their consequences for society and the environment. However, the role TA - and a fortiori participatory Technology Assessment - might play in the policymaking processes is far from obvious: projects such as PubliForums or PubliFocus are supplemental to already highly complex political procedures and institutions. Therefore, participatory enterprises have to construct their role on a case by case basis, depending on the political situation and the issue at stake. Based on the different participatory projects organized by the Swiss Centre for Technology Assessment, some of the roles participatory enterprises can play may be highlighted. This is in no way an exhaustive list of political roles of TA, but rather an exploration of possible political roles.
To begin with, participatory enterprises can achieve an unexpected - but essential - role in science and technology policy regarding the promotion of democratic procedures.
The first PubliForum organized by the Swiss Centre for Technology Assessment - which was also the first procedure of its kind ever set up in Switzerland - had a mainly indirect influence on political spheres. In fact, this PubliForum, dedicated to the issue of electricity, has above all raised interest from the methodological point of view: the media and political actors considered it a promising tool for fostering the dialogue between science and society. The lack of such a dialogue was strongly felt at this time, as the PubliForum took place a few weeks before the popular vote on the gene protection initiative, an initiative that demanded the end of genetic engineering in Switzerland. At the time of the PubliForum, the campaign about this initiative was at its height, with simplistic and reductionist arguments in play. The PubliForum was then presented by many commentators as a model for how a fair and constructive dialogue can take place.
As a result of these comments, other similar dialogues took place in Switzerland in the following years (such as the dialogue on genetic testing) and it was also made possible for TA-SWISS to organize further PubliForums. In this respect, the first PubliForum had primarily the function of "ice breaker" in the Swiss societal and political landscape.
Faced with major problems, policymakers sometimes fail to recognize the problems or dare to present potentially unpopular measures. Traditionally, NGOs or citizens' action groups are trying to put an issue or a measure on the political agenda and, hence, pressure on the governments to consider these neglected points. In countries with a tradition of direct democracy, like Switzerland, new issues can also be raised through popular initiatives. Arguably, participatory enterprises can have similar goals. By inviting several actors to discuss an issue and giving publicity and transparency to these discussions, the initiators of a participatory enterprise aim at putting issues on the political agenda.

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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Giuseppe Pellegrini
  2. 2] http://www.ta-swiss.ch/e/index.html
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