A Little Respect: Involving Citizens in Technology Assessment

By Chris Mooney | April 29, 2010 11:24 am

This is a guest post by Darlene Cavalier, a writer and senior adviser at Discover Magazine. Darlene holds a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader. She founded ScienceCheerleader.com and cofounded ScienceForCitizens.net to make it possible for lay people to contribute to science.

Happy Thursday.

Very pleased to be filling in for Sheril this month. These are big shoes to fill, to say the least.  During my time with you, I hope my writings provide a bit of inspiration, provocation, or, failing that, some entertainment to brighten your day. All I ask in return is that you keep doing what you do so well here: share your ideas and comments.

Some of you (two, three?) may know me as the Science Cheerleader, a persona who advocates–and creates  mechanisms–for public participation in science and science policy.  These are broad terms with multiple definitions, depending on the author’s intention. Let’s dive right into one of this author’s intentions: to create a way for citizens and experts to participate in assessments of emerging technologies.

Citizens, your time has come! On this day in history, Aretha Franklin released her hit song, Respect. And on THIS day, respect for your insights, values, concerns, and expertise, are the tenets of the breaking news I’m about to share….

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars  in Washington,  D.C., to help release a report and a call to action for the creation of a national participatory technology assessment network. The report and network were initiated by me, so I’m clearly biased.

What originally began as Science Cheerleader’s effort to  help reopen the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (an agency, shut down in the 90’s, that helped Congress better understand policy implications of complex, science issues), has evolved into this reincarnation.

Why? It became apparent after two years-worth of numerous discussions with a variety of stakeholders, that reopening the “old” OTA would leave little, if any, opportunities to invoke contemporary applications critical to 21st century governing: decentralized expertise (tapping the knowledge of scientists across the nation) and citizen engagement, to name but two.

The report, Reinventing Technology Assessment: A 21st Century Model, was authored by my partner in crime, Richard Sclove, the founder and senior fellow of the Loka Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making science and technology responsive to democratically decided priorities. The report emphasizes the need to incorporate citizen-participation methods to complement expert analysis.

Government policymakers, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and citizens rely on  analysis to capably navigate the technology-intensive world in which we now live. The new model, described in the report,  would provide opportunities to generate input from a diverse public audience,  while promoting societal discussions and public education.

This redefines the technology assessment model by recommending the formation of a first-of-its-kind U.S. network to implement the recommendations: Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST).

Darlene Pic[Meet the founding partners of ECAST: Pictured left to right: Mahmud Farooque, AZ State Univ.; David Sittenfeld, Boston Museum of Science; Larry Bell, Boston Museum of Science; David Rejeski, Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars; Richard Sclove, Loka Institute; Darlene Cavalier,  ScienceCheerleader.com. Not pictured:  David Guston, ASU; David Rabkin, MoS.]

The Wilson Center’s press release summarizes the need for this new paradigm, nicely:

While Congress was shutting down the OTA, Europe was busy creating agencies of science and technological assessment.  Today, 18 such European Technology Assessment agencies flourish.  Europe has pioneered important new methods, including Participatory Technology Assessment (pTA). By educating and engaging laypeople, pTA is unique in enabling decision-makers to incorporate constituents’ informed views on emerging developments in science and technology. pTA also deepens the social and ethical analysis of technology.

European pTA methods have been adapted, tested, and proven in the U.S. at  least 16 times by university-based groups and independent nonprofit organizations.

“We style ourselves as living in a ‘technological society’ and an ‘information age,’” notes report author Dr. Richard Sclove, “yet we lack adequate information about – of all things! – the broad implications of science and technology.”

As the pace of technological change quickens, and the Obama Administration moves forward on its Open Government Initiative, the time is ripe to institutionalize a robust national TA capability which incorporates both expert and participatory TA methods. The Internet and social networking capacities make it possible to organize such an endeavor on a distributed, agile and open basis, harnessing collaborative efficiencies and supporting broad public engagement.

“In the 15 years since OTA was closed, TA has progressed significantly in  Europe. It is time for the U.S. to institutionalize a serious, continuous and nonpartisan capability to assess the broad social, ethical, legal, and economic impacts of emerging science and technology in areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and earth systems engineering,” said David  Rejeski, who directs the Wilson Center program.

The ECAST network has already expanded to include many additional museums,  universities, and strong interest from government agencies and the White House.

Personally, I’m hopeful non-traditional actors also step up to the plate. Imagine for a moment a WILD extension to the variety of necessary deliberation models detailed in Sclove’s report (including–but not limited to–consensus conferences and citizen juries). What if McDonald’s,  Starbucks, local bookstores, community centers, and hell, even the NBA, participated in, say, a Day of Deliberation on Synthetic Bio? (A twist on a novel proposal by James Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman.)

Now imagine a dotted line from those conversations to Congress, and the White House, among many others. Yes, it’s pretty complex, embedded with a host of complicating factors, and smacks of naivety. It’s also crucial to our lives and those of our kids. And, as tax-payers (funders of much of the research behind these emerging technologies), you are more than entitled to become informed and have a say, no?

Food for thought. Fire away!


Comments (26)

  1. Robert Little

    Darlene, part of the problem is motivating the public. “Why should we care?” might be a common question, and we should have ready answers to this.

    Here’s an example of possible motivation, from western New York State. About three years ago, a riverside road collapsed, along with some housing. The rifts formed in the hillside ground were perhaps fifty feet deep. One of my geology professors took a look at this and said something like, “why did people build here? Why didn’t they understand the risk?” This professor does geological risk assessments, and he’s left with questions like this. Obviously geology isn’t just a science for the curious, but has real-world implications such as this one.

    Once people are shown examples like this one, there’s a potential to inspire motivation for better understanding how science works. From this simple example, we get into fields beyond geological risk assessment: for example, climate study has implications here, because we have to know rainfall and freeze/thaw cycles in order to perform risk assessment in areas like this one. In turn, that leads to a wider view beyond the strictly local concern of this specific hazard assessment.

    PS I happen to know John Collier, and he talks up SC quite often. He’s a great person.

  2. Congratulations and thanks for your leadership on this. Robert Little makes a good point – having a multitude of personal stories at the ready will be enormously helpful.

  3. I was rather lukewarm on bringing back the OTA because it’s so rare that government agencies die no matter how useless they are and the OTA took two years to write something and duplicated other work so it was useless to the 143 people not working there. Obviously you disagreed with my take on that. 🙂

    But this is a much improved idea and I am glad for it because this will include ethical and social implications and at least make some effort to include people who can’t easily go to D.C.

    Good job!

  4. This is a great idea! Thanks for spearheading this effort. Like you said, Citizens, your time has come–we’re so ready! Congratulations.

  5. I echo congratulations and think this is such an opportunity.

    As founder of a grassroots movement (SCOPE) in Missouri, I find it’s possible and critical to connect the public to Science and Technology in unique layperson ways. Museums are great. Can we add to that outreach, for those who wouldn’t self select to attend a meeting on something like Biotechnology at a museum? Science and Technology becomes relevant when it’s continually interweaving though a town, region and state. Meet people where there at through presentations to Business (Chamber of Commerce meetings), Education (School Board, PTA/PTO), Policy (Town Halls) and Civic (Rotary, etc). Ongoing layering at communal event,s which don’t traditionally focus on Science and Technology, (MO State Fair and County Fairs) along with a pathway of resources and education, scholarship, internship and workforce opportunities provide the “what’s in it for me”.

    Connecting to tangible benefits, inspiring people with future betterment and giving pathways to be part of a movement brings more people into the conversation. It allows us to secure a full cross sampling of public perception, bias and insight. Societal angst isn’t new. Creative methods, transparency and public engagement will allow us to navigate the road from Industrial Age to Era of Innovation in a faster more unified manner. Appreciate the report and endeavor! Look forward to seeing this progress.

  6. Michael

    This is the right time for this idea. With your leadership I have no doubt that this most needed initiative will succeed. Please keep up the good work.

  7. JT Lewis

    Many thanks to you, and to the WWCIS for your leadership on this issue. We all recognize science and technology are key to a successful and stable economy. So it was frustrating to see the OTA dismantled–a rare gov’t agency in that it worked as envisioned -even as our world becomes more technologically complex and the pace of decision making, frenetic. Europe has surged ahead, creating multiple offices of technological assessment, many with citizen input. What will you tackle next, world peace?

  8. ChrisD

    This sounds like a great idea in principle, but I’m trying to understand how it keeps from getting hamstrung by individuals with opposed viewpoints and ideologies. I guess I’ll have to actually read the full report.

    Thanks for your leadership, Darlene. Something like this is sorely needed.

    I do wish you hadn’t made the unnecessary and unkind comment about the size of Sheril’s feet, but whatever.

  9. John Takao Collier


    We’ve discussed this a couple of times – I strongly believe that when people start to feel that they have “skin in the game” and that their input has a chance to producing tangible improvements, then they become more motivated. For something of this nature, the increase in motivation will take some time, but citizen input into science policy will “bootstrap” the overall level of science literacy, which will increase citizen participation, which will cause improvements to science policy, which leads to greater citizen input, and so forth. A virtuous cycle is created. Yeah, call me naïve, but my naivety has gotten me this far, so I’ll keep it. Keep up the good work!

    P.S. – Another way to motivate people is to make them believe that “everyone else is doing it, so I should be doing it too”. Refer to http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-08/uocp-arw082208.php

    P.P.S. – I did not pay Robert Little to say nice things about me, he did it all on his own dime. He’s a great guy, too.

  10. Excellent idea. Having done a little playing around with systems that tried to bring in outside perspectives into science policy and government forecasting, I’ve thought some about the underlying design issues. Check out http://www.future2.org/2010/04/designing-an-ecast-how-to-bring-citizens-into-science-policy.html

  11. Robert: you’re right. Striking a cord that motivates people to participate is both challenging and imperative. Many (most?) people only have the time or desire to engage in issues of direct relevance to them. When they do invest their time, we can’t waste it or dismiss their input, either. Thanks for reminding us of this.
    David: thanks for the encouragement and reminder to keep the focus on the general public. I’ll admit, when Congress, the White House, and other “biggies” express interest in “partnering,” it’s appealing. Rest assured, we’re in this for the public good. Each of us is motivated by the desire to help facilitate discourse among the public, scientists, and policy makers.
    Hank: Always love reading your comments. You tell it like it is! (Folks: Hank’s the founder of ScientificBlogging.com Check it out when you can.)
    SocialSci:I’ve been following your efforts, too. You’re smarter than I am bc you’ve actually figured out a revenue stream! Best of luck with SocialSci.
    Cynthia: SCOPE sounds very interesting, particularly bc it’s embedded in MO, a state I/we often over-look. You’re in the trenches there so your insights are of particular value. Thanks for your comments. I’ve sent you a personal email as well.
    Michael: well, thanks for the cheering on!
    JT: Great points. It’s ironic our OTA closed when other nations were just getting started with their own versions of OTA. More to the point: it’s a little pathetic that any attempts to reopen our OTA wouldn’t include best practices (or lessons learned) from 15+years of experiences overseas. Read: PUBLIC PARTICIPATION.
    Chris: There will always be people with opposing viewpoints. That’s what this country is all about. To ignore or dismiss them is counterproductive. That said, there is a way to present a general snapshot or consensus of a representative sampling of America. This information will be of value to local, state, and federal policymakers. (Perhaps Sheril’s foot-size is average and mine is abnormally small? 🙂 )
    Two related comments I’d like to direct you all to:
    1) Designing an ECAST, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang : http://www.future2.org/2010/04/designing-an-ecast-how-to-bring-citizens-into-science-policy.html
    2) Power to the people: should citizens be more engaged with assessing emerging technologies? By Andrew Maynard: http://2020science.org/2010/04/28/power-to-the-people-should-citizens-be-more-involved-in-assessing-energing-technologies/#comments

  12. John Takao Collier

    Me again.

    Just a thought – Might it be possible to get some type of “big media star” to lend their name to this cause? A couple come immediately to mind: Neil deGrasse Tyson or James Cameron (director of Avatar) – he’s a science geek at heart: http://www.ted.com/talks/james_cameron_before_avatar_a_curious_boy.html

    The coolness factor might help jumpstart the effort.

  13. Darlene:
    As always, I’d be interested to see how this could be applied to NASA and other space activities. It would be especially useful now, given the Obama administration’s new direction for the agency and, as someone else pointed out, the general question of WIIFM re: space.


  14. John Kwok

    @ John Takao Collier –

    You have to apologize for my skepticism, but I’d prefer someone who would sound and act credibly, as a scientist, instead of a Hollywood film director (unless that exception is Randy Olson, who is both). So I would concur with someone like Tyson, and ignore Cameron (whose Avatar was noteworthy only for its revolutionary special effects, not for its characters or plot).

    @ Darlene –

    Don’t sell yourself short. By virtue of this very post you are doing an admirable job filling in for Sheril.

    Anyway, definitely a sound idea with respect to ECAST, since there is potentially ample public interest from those interested in Tyson’s PBS NOVA ScienceNow, NASA, etc. etc. But of course for this to work we need renewed emphasis on quality science education, merely to point out where advocates of opposing vacination in children, global warming and evolution denialism are so obviously wrong.

  15. Gaythia

    I think that involving citizens in technology assessment is a very worthy idea. I have started to read through the “Reinventing Technology Assessment: A 21st Century Model” report. This does raises some concerns with me. I think that it is important to bear in mind the ways in which we are not Denmark, Canada, or even Boston which are examples cited. Having been to one of the public congressperson meetings on health care reform, I’ve seen how this sort of forum can be hijacked by small numbers of people from organized special interest groups.

    This effort needs to be well grounded. I think that it is important to keep in mind that some people will be participating not really as private citizens interested a collaboration or cooperative venture, but rather to drive their own, or some special interest, or even corporate agenda.

  16. Gaythia, the pTA process is very structured and designed to avoid exactly the kind of pifalls common in town hall style meetings. For an US example, you may want to visit the National Citizens’ Technology Forum Report by Hamlett, Cobb and Guston (2008):
    You can also visit the project website where many of the deliberation and factoids are available: http://www4.ncsu.edu/~pwhmds/

  17. Hi Gaythia: Your concern about last year’s “Congress on Your Corner” town halls on health care reform is understandable. But that format has nothing to do with how participatory technology assessment (pTA) has been structured and organized. Here’s what my “Reinventing Technology Assessment” report says (on p. 34):

    “. . . a carefully structured pTA process cannot be hijacked by organized interest groups in this way. In a pTA process such as a consensus conference, for example, participants do not self-select; instead, they are randomly chosen to reflect the demographic profile of a target population, such as a political jurisdiction or geographical region. Representatives of organized stakeholder groups may be invited to sit on a consensus conference steering committee or to prepare testimony as members of the expert panel, but they are excluded from sitting on the lay panel. The chosen lay participants are then presented with balanced information reflecting multiple points of view, and their conversation is moderated by a trained, neutral facilitator who ensures that everyone has an opportunity to speak and no one dominates. This is quite different from the politically vulnerable ‘Congress on Your Corner’ format.”

    Processes like this have also been demonstrated successfully in North Carolina, Atlanta, Denver, and elsewhere in the U.S. and also twice in a multi-site format (not to mention dozens of times in at least 15 other countries besides Denmark).

  18. Gaythia

    Mahmud and Richard Sclove, this sounds very promising! I look forward to learning more.

  19. John Takao Collier

    Very interesting stuff, especially ECAST and the ideas in the “Reinventing Technology Assessment” report. I quickly looked over the material, so admittedly I have missed many nuances. However I did not see any mention of using modern techniques for text and data analysis (sometimes referred to as “sentiment analysis”) to capture a broad cross-section of public opinion. Examples of input sources might be blogs, comments to blogs (such as this), news articles and perhaps question and answer sessions via the Internet on a particular topic. Sentiment analysis has the potential for being an inexpensive method to gather another stream of information from a wide swath (thousands or millions) of the lay public; the downside is that it is highly unstructured and (depending on the context) could be more biased than desired. Another possible downside is the perception that some sort of Orwellian “Big Brother” is monitoring your opinions on science policy.

    Full disclosure: I work for a company that sells text and data analysis products.

  20. John Takao Collier

    I cannot speak to the artistic merits of the movie “Avatar” because I haven’t seen it yet. Film director James Cameron (as far as I can tell) seems to be very enthusiastic about science (I believe that he has helped fund and as participated in undersea research). Indeed, he is apparently designing a 3D camera that may be installed on the next Mars rover (http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9176160/NASA_James_Cameron_to_develop_3D_camera_for_Mars_rover). Therefore, given that he is a famous “citizen scientist”, my point is that he might help lend much needed publicity and credence to this effort to engage the lay public in science policy.

  21. Adult students have a lot to contentthan traditional college-aged students. They have the demands of children to deal with as well as the stresses of trying to find student loans that will allow them to attend university.

  22. The Wilson Center’s report is certainly correct to point out that Europe is leaps and bounds in front of the US in this area. I wonder what more could be learned from the collective experiences there. A project like this seems to require genuine participation from government, public, funders, and, crucially, the research community. Bringing all of these stakeholders together will require some cultural shifts. Many of these transformations seem to be currently in motion, but how have our European counterparts kept momentum alive in all of these sectors simultaneously?

  23. Judith Lewis

    What a marvelous idea–tapping into the enthusiasm and ideas of an underused resource, non-professionals with an interest in and affinity for science, citizen scientists, like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. Perhaps if we blur the line between scientists/academics and the rest of us we can spread the word that science is not an agenda but a pursuit. I’d like to see more citizen scientists. And more science cheerleaders. You go, Dar.

  24. Thanks again for the support, comments, and questions. Here’s a nice endorsement of our plan, from Nature. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v465/n7294/full/465010a.html#/

  25. Dylan

    Having lay-citizens involved in discussions pertaining to science policy and recommendation at a national level is a very, very bad idea. The normal citizen of the US knows next to nothing about even basic science. To give these people any sort of a say into the the science policy of the country is only going to hasten the downfall of the US’s scientific leadership. The reason the OTA worked so well is because it was experts working together to solve problems and guide things without a typically American political bent. If you involve regular citizens there is no possible way to keep the politics out of it, even if you show the lay-people multiple viewpoints they are going to pick the one that mostly resembles their religious or political viewpoints every single time. The people in this country don’t even know what a scientific theory is, how can you expect them to make wise non-partisan decision. I do think it would be wise to include scientists from academia and research institutions around the country but please for the love of science keep lay-people out of science policy. Science policy isn’t about making a particular group happy it’s about making the scientifically advisable choices that will make this country a better place for everyone.

  26. Darlene, you and your colleagues are a wonderful voice. The call for citizen participation is important. Hazel Henderson and I at Ethical Markets agree with your efforts. As Vicktor Frankl urged in 1972, let’s expect the best from our citizens, rather than accept the current. “If you take man as he really is, you make him worse. But if you overestimate him – idealistic, overrating – we promote him to what he really can be.” Let’s make the women and men of the US reach to what they can be: informed, wise, thoughtful, articulate, invested in a scientific future where the moral, ethical, economic, societal, political, international implications of the science we pursue are actively debated. For so much of this, you don’t need to be expert in physics or biology or molecular science. You need imagination, creativity, information and a venue to explore. We support you in creating such a venue.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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