Conceptual focus of TA
Technology assessment (TA) developed as a scientific and societal reaction to the problem of how to deal with complex side effects and uncertainties in science and technology. The experience that in modern age the unintended side-effects of science, technology and technological advance can take on considerable dimensions, the challenge of whether and how knowledge of side-effects can already be integrated into decision-making processes, as well as the problem of dealing with the inevitable uncertainties of knowledge define the main questions to be answered by TA.. "Assessment" as an explicitly rational and process-oriented approach for responding to these challenges thus becomes the focus of the conceptual considerations on TA. Accordingly, the impacts of technology are treated within the framework of an assessment of policy options for technology design which can satisfy the demands of dealing with complex problems of technology impacts. The respective concepts offered by TA to society and politics are strongly dependent on the context - and require continued modernisation if these contexts are subject to rapid changes in a dynamically developing global society.
The continued need for modernisation of TA
TA as a specific form of interdisciplinary technology research and scientific policy advice is, as problem-oriented research approaches in general, earmarked, context dependent, and addressee-related. In the opinion-forming and decision-making processes for which TA provides knowledge and orientation, the situation-specific contexts and expectations of the respective addressees play an important role. Changes in the social environment of TA (social and political conditions, roles and constellations of the relevant actors, opinion-forming and decision-making processes) therefore have a direct impact on the forms of assessment in the sense described above. In order to cope with the task, TA must therefore be able to observe and conceptually respond to changes in its environment or pro-actively reflect these changes in its own conceptual identity.
Current changes in the social environment
TA became established in the 1960ies and 1970ies against the background of an optimistic planning-oriented and state-centred orientation. Policy advice as "early warning against technology-related risks", support of the legislative against the executive, and the beginnings of stakeholder involvement characterise this initial phase. In the meantime, there have been far-reaching changes: the more or less continuing crisis of the representative democracy model with always different characteristics, the economic globalisation, the current discussion on the uncertainty of knowledge, the concept of sustainable development, considerations on new social governance structures with increased attention to participative elements, the innovation weakness of many economies, ethical discussions, primarily in the biomedical context, and new structures in the scientific system. Present issues in the social, political and scientific context of TA are:
- the development towards a globally networked "knowledge society";
- the decreasing controllability of nation states in view of supranational institutions and global companies;
- the internationally established concept of sustainability with its social implications (e.g. equal opportunity in the access to knowledge, participation, self-organisation, reflexivity);
- the strong demand for 'foresight' since the late 1990ies - in competition with or as complement or extension of TA?
- the emphasising of market-oriented innovation processes and the importance of the economy for technology development;
- the increasing evaluation pressure in research, including its still unanswered questions of quality criteria of TA.
These developments have in one or other way already led to new or modified TA concepts. However, a conceptual redefinition of the social location of TA is still to come. For this reason, the project pursues the following goals:
- systematic survey of the present conceptual status of TA, and its embedding into political/social processes;
- specification of the outlined diagnoses of a changing social environment of TA and deduction of consequences for TA;
- formulation of an adequate long-term TA paradigm with regard to the aspects of production and distribution of TA knowledge within the framework of institutional changes;
- analysis of the consequences of the conceptual considerations for TA practice.
The formulation of results is performed within the framework of an open "project workshop" (TA laboratory) at ITAS. Thesis and stimulus papers - presented or delivered by members of the project team - shall initiate the discussion. The work is focussed on:
- definition possibilities of TA and determination of the conceptual focus, as well as development of a criteria matrix for classification of TA concepts;
- reconstruction of relevant TA concepts against the background of the criteria in terms of their premises, their problem-solving capacities, and their limits;
- analysis of the changing demands on TA in science, society and politics;
- conceptualisation of TA as an element of a new knowledge policy;
- analysis of the consequences for the production and distribution of knowledge in TA (concepts and approaches, inter- and transdisciplinarity, new forms of policy advice and social discourse, TA in the innovation process)
- consequences for the practice of TA with example fields from the TA reality.