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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

03.11.2011 | Event

Successful conclusion to the German EPTA presidency 2011

EPTA Council meeting and scientific conference in Berlin

TAB and the German Bundestag’s Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment jointly hosted this year’s meeting of the EPTA Council and organised an international conference attended by high-level delegates on 19/20 October which was chaired by Ms. Ulla Burchardt, the chairwoman of the committee, and Prof. Armin Grunwald, TAB’s Director, to mark Germany’s presidency of the EPTA. EPTA – the European network of 18 organisations advising parliaments on technology assessment – is now attracting attention from far beyond the borders of Europe, as evidenced by the participation of guests from the US, Australia and China.

The morning of 19 October started with the EPTA directors and parliamentarians from Europe and overseas attending a meeting of the committee as guests at which, among other things, the TAB report on »Pharmacological performance enhancement« was presented and discussed. After lunch the meeting of the EPTA Council, the network’s ruling body, was devoted to international developments in research policy and technology assessment and to future collaboration with further countries, their parliaments and UNESCO. The presidency of EPTA for 2012 was conferred on the Catalonian partners from Barcelona at a reception at the German Parliamentary Association.

On 20 October 2011 almost 150 parliamentarians and scientists from 20 nations met in the grand plenary hall of the German Bundestag’s Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus for a conference on the subject of »Hope, Hype and Fear Technologies«. The much-discussed topics of nanotechnology, internet/cyberdemocracy and geoengineering/climate engineering made up the agenda. The potential to solve global problems (»hope«) is ascribed to all of them; at the same time they are able to stimulate far-reaching visions of the future and incite extremely high expectations (»hype«); however, they almost always also generate alarm (»fear«) among the general population because their consequences are difficult to predict. These contradictory messages and expectations and the »opportunities and risks« so beloved of the media mean that there is a significant pressure on politicians in terms of decision-making and policy formulation with regard to such normatively sensitive issues: knowledge has to be acquired, strategies to address problems have to be developed, and communication about risks has to take place.

»Nanotechnologies« session
(Chair: Dr. Walter Peissl, Institute for Technology Assessment, Vienna)

Dr. Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Professor of Chemistry, History, Ethics and Philosophy of Science (University of Paris I, Pantheon-Sorbonne), emphasised in her introductory presentation that the role of the population had changed. In light of the various applications for nanotechnology and for products which are increasingly crowding onto the market, the general public was greatly alerted, she stated – e.g. to the impacts on human health and the environment. As consumers, she stated, people were placing increasingly rigorous demands on government and industry, expecting not only a guarantee of proven product safety but also evidence of the meaningfulness and efficiency of this technology. This was confirmed in a video message by the French parliamentarian Dr. Claude Birraux, President of the Parliamentary Office for Science and TA (OPECST). However, he also called on those present not to lose sight during their discussions of the opportunities offered by this key technology. Scientists, industrialists and business people had to be innovative, he declared, but the general public also had to have the opportunity to play an ongoing role in discussing and influencing developments.

Dr. Frans Brom, Professor of Ethics and TA (University of Utrecht) and the Director of TA at the Rathenau Institute in the Netherlands, addressed the role of trust in the context of major technological developments. Trust was a matter of outstanding importance in today’s pluralistic societies, he stated. For that reason, the emphasis had always been on a fundamentally transparent, ongoing and public consultation process with regard to setting the political agenda on nanotechnology in the Netherlands. Dr. Thomas Jakl, Director at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management and Chairman of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), spoke next and – in addition to referring in general to the European chemicals legislation, REACH – described the ways of involving the general public in Austria’s National Nanotechnology Action Plan. The concretion of this plan represents a kind of unique feature in that it calls for a comprehensive integration and application of the »causer pays« and precautionary principle.

Dr. Tim Persons, the senior scientist at the US Congress’s TA body, the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO), reported on the enormous discrepancy between the economic impacts of the use of nanotechnology expected by the government (against the backdrop of many years of public investment to the tune of several billion dollars annually), on the one hand, and the continuing low level of public awareness of these technologies, on the other hand. One reason for this could be that – in contrast to the situation in most European countries – it is only very recently that the focus has shifted to the socioenvironmental and ethical implications of nanotechnology among politicians and the general public and that relevant research and communication strategies are now being developed. Finally, Free Democrat Bundestag member and rapporteur on TA Prof. Martin Neumann stressed that there was still a lack of suitable test and measurement methods which could ultimately demonstrate the opportunities and risks of the use of nanotechnology more specifically. However, he underlined that this was also extremely important for political decision makers. As an example, he cited the as yet unresolved health impacts of the absorption of nano-silver into the body. Only when consequences had been reliably demonstrated or ruled out, he explained, was it possible for politicians to respond appropriately and, among other things, amend occupational health and safety requirements. In the subsequent discussion further problems raised by other parliamentarians included the continuing lack or inadequacy of definitions of nanotechnology at a substance or process level which have made the necessary regulatory work difficult at the national but also at EU level. The question was also posed as to whether REACH might be the right umbrella under which to regulate nanotechnology.

»Internet and cyberdemocracy« session
(Chair: Lars Klüver, Danish Board of Technology)

Whereas the Frankfurt political scientist and e-democracy researcher Prof. Thomas Zittel described the internet as a hype technology in his introductory address, the Director of the Norwegian Board of Technology, Tore Tennøe, countered this by stating that in Norway the internet had changed from a hype to a fear technology. Zittel’s assessment referred to recent statements by politicians to the effect that the conditions for policy making had been changed more radically by the internet than by anything which had happened since the French Revolution. The conditions for political communication and the concept of democracy and participation had changed fundamentally because of the internet, he declared. Tennøe, on the other hand, cited the terrorist atrocity in Norway by a lone attacker in July of this year. This attack had revealed the dark side of the internet and placed it at the heart of the debate on security within society. Many questions that were long thought to have been settled were back on the agenda since then, he reported, and there had been calls for a reassessment of the internet. Even if the Norwegian government’s response to the terrorist attack had been to defend openness, democracy and the civil society without neglecting security, it was precisely this that was the major challenge – including for technology assessment: how is it possible to reconcile openness and the security of society in general in the age of the internet? It was argued, of course, that the internet did not cause any terrorist attacks but had, at most, changed the respective conditions under which terror arises and is organised.

Apart from the speakers mentioned already, papers were also presented by Social Democrat Bundestag member Gerold Reichenbach, the Deputy Chairman of the »Internet and Digital Society« Study Commission, Bart van Malderen, Flemish MP and Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Flemish parliamentary TA body, IST, and Bundestag member and rapporteur for the CDU/CSU parties on TA Dr. Thomas Feist. The interchange between politicians, scientists and TA representatives also continued in the lively discussion that ensued. For all the different individual positions and focuses, there was unanimity on one point: the internet is here and it has changed the world. Ignoring it is no longer an option and nor is simply blaming it for all ills. Even if we do not always have an answer to how to limit the negative aspects of use of the internet and to promote the positive ones, there is no alternative but to fight for an appropriate institutionalisation of the internet in political forums.

»Geo-/Climate Engineering« Session
(Chair: Prof. David Cope, POST)

Geoengineering technologies are under discussion as the third approach to resolving the problem of anthropogenic global warming, alongside mitigation and adaptation strategies. The debate is controversial, mirroring the scientific uncertainties and the potentially high risks of these technologies. Thus Lord Phil Willis, Chairman of the UK parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee until 2010, expressed his hope that geoengineering technologies would never have to be put into operation. Despite this, it would, in his view, be a fundamental error not to carry out research particularly into the risks of these technologies since their application might be necessary one day after all. Lord Willis stressed that hype generally gave rise to serious dangers. By exaggerating the dangers, opponents could contribute to important research being delayed or prevented – as a consequence of which politicians would have to make decisions based on uncertain science. Proponents – tempted, for instance, by commercial interests – could overstate benefits and deny risks. Lord Willis identified open, transparent and reliable research and public involvement in decision-making processes as important elements of strategies to prevent facts being distorted by radical opponents or proponents.

The fact that geoengineering technologies currently offered no solution to the climate problem and use of the technologies could entail negative impacts on a multinational scale was also emphasised by Bart Gordon, who was the Chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology of the US Congress until 2010. Gordon drew particular attention to the danger that sustained hype about these technologies could tempt wealthy persons or individual states to implement geoengineering technologies on their own account, with potentially serious consequences. Against this backdrop, he welcomed the fact that this issue was being addressed as part of the technology assessment debate.

Dr. Ralph Bodle, the delegation lawyer at the CBD negotiations and senior researcher at the Berlin-based Ecologic Institute, pointed out that geoengineering included a range of very different technologies, each with its own specific risks and effectiveness standards, which represented a major hurdle in terms of international regulation. Bodle also addressed the difficulties of the division of roles between scientists and politicians. Politicians ought not to expect any clear recommendation from scientists for or against the use of the technologies since experiments or models might not be able to eliminate all uncertainties, he stated. In his view, scientists should only provide data whereas ultimately it is the task of the politicians to take the necessary decisions on the use or non-use of the technologies, for which they also bear the accountability. Bundestag member and TA rapporteur Hans-Josef Fell (Alliance 90/The Greens) also emphasised that the term »geoengineering« included a range of technologies, each of which needed to be evaluated on its own merits. In his opinion, for example, geoengineering measures to reduce atmospheric carbon with the aid of plants was perfectly meaningful and should be implemented as a complement to mitigation strategies. Geoengineering technologies whose impacts on the ecosystem are largely unknown, on the other hand, should not be put into practice, he declared. Economist Prof. Gernot Klepper from Kiel Earth Institute stressed that the processes could be far more expensive than hitherto surmised after taking account of external costs. From an economic perspective geoengineering and mitigation strategies represented alternative and not complementary climate protection measures – it was therefore a major challenge for politicians, he claimed, to implement these two measures as complementary climate protection strategies.

Which further geoengineering-related research efforts were appropriate was fiercely debated in the subsequent discussion – in light of the generally agreed view that mitigation and adaptation strategies should primarily be pursued and that, if at all possible, most geoengineering technologies should never be used. There was consensus that basic research should be promoted initially to gain a better understanding of the climate system, but that it was still too early for applied research questions such as how concrete geoengineering measures can be technologically implemented.

Closing the conference, Drs. Jan Staman, the Director of the Rathenau Institute in the Netherlands, was extremely positive in his summary of this year’s EPTA presidency and of the conference, thanked the German hosts and wished the Catalonian colleagues the same level of success for their EPTA presidency in 2012.

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