Technology assessment (TA, German Technikfolgenabschätzung, French évaluation des choix scientifiques et technologiques) is a scientific, interactive, and communicative process that aims to contribute to the formation of public and political opinion on societal aspects of science and technology.
TA is the study and evaluation of new technologies. It is based on the conviction that new developments within, and discoveries by, the scientific community are relevant for the world at large rather than just for the scientific experts themselves, and that technological progress can never be free of ethical implications. Also, technology assessment recognizes the fact that scientists normally are not trained ethicists themselves and accordingly ought to be very careful when passing ethical judgement on their own, or their colleagues, new findings, projects, or work in progress.
Technology assessment assumes a global perspective and is future-oriented, not anti-technological. TA considers its task as an interdisciplinary approach to solving already existing problems and preventing potential damage caused by the uncritical application and the commercialization of new technologies.
Therefore, any results of technology assessment studies must be published, and particular consideration must be given to communication with political decision-makers.
An important problem concerning technology assessment is the so-called Collingridge dilemma: on the one hand, impacts of new technologies cannot be easily predicted until the technology is extensively developed and widely used; on the other hand, control or change of a technology is difficult as soon as it is widely used.
Technology assessments, which are a form of cost–benefit analysis, are difficult if not impossible to carry out in an objective manner since subjective decisions and value judgments have to be made regarding a number of complex issues such as (a) the boundaries of the analysis (i.e., what costs are internalized and externalized), (b) the selection of appropriate indicators of potential positive and negative consequences of the new technology, (c) the monetization of non-market values, and (d) a wide range of ethical perspectives. Consequently, most technology assessments are neither objective nor value-neutral exercises but instead are greatly influenced and biased by the values of the most powerful stakeholders, which are in many cases the developers and proponents (i.e., corporations and governments) of new technologies under consideration. In the most extreme view, as expressed by Ian Barbour in '’Technology, Environment, and Human Values'’, technology assessment is "a one-sided apology for contemporary technology by people with a stake in its continuation."
Some of the major fields of TA are: information technology, hydrogen technologies, nuclear technology, molecular nanotechnology, pharmacology, organ transplants, gene technology, artificial intelligence, the Internet and many more. Health technology assessment is related, but profoundly different, despite the similarity in the name.
Forms and concepts of technology assessment
The following types of concepts of TA are those that are most visible and practiced. There are, however, a number of further TA forms that are only proposed as concepts in the literature or are the label used by a particular TA institution.
- Parliamentary TA (PTA): TA activities of various kinds whose addressee is a parliament. PTA may be performed directly by members of those parliaments (e.g. in France and Finland) or on their behalf of related TA institutions (such as in the UK, in Germany and Denmark) or by organisations not directly linked to a Parliament (such as in the Netherlands and Switzerland).
- Expert TA (often also referred to as the classical TA or traditional TA concept): TA activities carried out by (a team of) TA and technical experts. Input from stakeholders and other actors is included only via written statements, documents and interviews, but not as in participatory TA.
- Participatory TA (pTA): TA activities which actively, systematically and methodologically involve various kinds of social actors as assessors and discussants, such as different kinds of civil society organisations, representatives of the state systems, but characteristically also individual stakeholders and citizens (lay persons), technical scientists and technical experts. Standard pTA methods include consensus conferences, focus groups, scenario workshops etc. Sometimes pTA is further divided into expert-stakeholder pTA and public pTA (including lay persons).
- Constructive TA (CTA): This concept of TA, developed in the Netherlands, but also applied and discussed elsewhere attempts to broaden the design of new technology through feedback of TA activities into the actual construction of technology. Contrary to other forms of TA, CTA is not directed toward influencing regulatory practices by assessing the impacts of technology. Instead, CTA wants to address social issues around technology by influencing design practices.
- Discursive TA or Argumentative TA: This type of TA wants to deepen the political and normative debate about science, technology and society. It is inspired by ethics, policy discourse analysis and the sociology of expectations in science and technology. This mode of TA aims to clarify and bring under public and political scrutiny the normative assumptions and visions that drive the actors who are socially shaping science and technology. Accordingly, argumentative TA not only addresses the side effects of technological change, but deals with both broader impacts of science and technology and the fundamental normative question of why developing a certain technology is legitimate and desirable.
- Health TA (HTA): A specialised type of expert TA informing policy makers about efficacy, safety and cost effectiveness issues of pharmaceuticals and medical treatments, see health technology assessment.
Technology assessment institutions around the world
Many TA institutions are members of the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment (EPTA) network, some are working for the STOA panel of the European Parliament and formed the European Technology Assessment Group (ETAG).
- Centre for Technology Assessment (TA-SWISS), Bern, Switzerland.
- Institute of Technology Assessment (ITA) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna
- Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany
- (former) Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)
- The Danish Board of Technology Foundation, Copenhagen
- Norwegian Board of Technology, Oslo
- Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), London
- Rathenau Institute, The Hague
- Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) panel of the European Parliament, Brussels
- Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU), Sussex
- Collingridge dilemma
- Technology dynamics
- Technology forecasting
- Technology readiness level
- Technology transfer
- Scientific Technology Options Assessment (STOA), European Parliament
- European Technology Assessment Group for STOA
- Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS), Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany
- Office of Technology Assessment at the German Parliament (TAB)
- TA-SWISS Centre for Technology Assessment
- Institute of Technology Assessment (ITA), Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, Austria
- The Danish Board of Technology
- Rathenau Institute
- The Norwegian Board of Technology
- Cf. the commonly used definition given in the report of the EU-funded project TAMI (Technology Assessment – Methods and Impacts) in 2004: ta-swiss.ch
- Huesemann, Michael H., and Joyce A. Huesemann (2011). Technofix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment, Chapter 8, "The Positive Biases of Technology Assessments and Cost Benefit Analyses", New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada, ISBN 0865717044, 464 pp.
- Barbour, I.A. (1980). Technology, environment, and human values, Praeger, p. 202.
- Among those concepts one finds, for instance, Interactive TA ITAS.fzk.de, Rational TA EA-AW.com, Real-time TA (cp. Guston/Sarewitz (2002) Real-time technology assessment, in: Technology in Society 24, 93–109), Innovation-oriented TA Innovationsanalysen.
- Those TA institutions that perform PTA are organised in the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment (EPTA) network; see EPTAnetwork.org.
- Cp. the 2000 EUROpTA (European Participatory Technology Assessment – Participatory Methods in Technology Assessment and Technology Decision-Making) project report TEKNO.dk.
- Van Eijndhoven (1997) Technology assessment: Product or process? in: Technological Forecasting and Social Change 54 (1997) 269–286.
- Schot/Rip (1997), The Past and Future of Constructive Technology Assessment in: Technological Forecasting & Social Change 54, 251–268.
- van Est/Brom (2010) Technology assessment as an analytic and democratic practice, in: Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics.