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No. 8: Mechanisms and Practices for the Assessment of the Social and Cultural Implications of Science and Technology

by Liora Salter, Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, under contract to Industry Canada as part of the Science & Technology Review, July 1995


As part of the review being conducted by Industry Canada on science and technology, this paper deals with the mechanisms and practices for the assessment of the social and cultural implications of technology. It examines the range and suitability of Canadian mechanisms and practices for assessing current and emerging social and cultural issues raised by science and the new technologies. It reaches the conclusion that, notwithstanding the vast resources applied to science and technology and their social and cultural implications, all is not well in this regard. The paper provides a discussion of what might be required to change the situation.

There is a vast literature dealing with the problems under review in this paper. It deals with assessment, with the various methods by which the assessment is carried out, with science and technology, with science and technology policy, and with the social and cultural implications of science and technology. To do justice to the literature, and to render the discussion manageable, the paper is structured in three parts. The first part uses four examples of conventional wisdom about science and technology or related matters as a foil, a means of arriving quickly at a focused synthesis of the literature. The second part draws on this synthesis to deal directly with the mechanisms and practices for the assessment of the social and cultural implications of science and technology. The focus is on three arenas of science policy. Each arena is analyzed in such a way as to make recommendations possible.

Finally, there are appendices containing case studies specially prepared for this paper. One discusses some aspects of biotechnology, and more particularly its use in agriculture. Its focus is on the social and cultural implications of science and technology, especially on how they have been dealt with in a variety of contexts. The second case study deals less with specific issues, and more with the range of mechanisms and practices used in Canada in dealing with the environmental, safety and health risks attached to science and technology and its implementation.

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Definition of Key Terms

A definition of some key terms is necessary.

  • Science and technology are different but related activities, and are considered a single enterprise for the purposes of this paper. Emphasis is given to the natural and technical sciences, but science is understood to include social sciences and economics. Distinctions between basic, mission-oriented and applied sciences are not of concern in this paper.
  • Mandated science is the body of science or technology — including basic science and applied research — drawn on expressly for the purposes of public policy and regulation.
  • Science policy is defined as government-initiated policies intended to promote or evaluate science and technology because of their contributions to, or the problems created for, the general well-being of society. In this context, science policy always deals, explicitly or implicitly, with the social and cultural implications of science and technology, whatever other objectives are also intended.
  • The social and cultural implications of science and technology include not only the social by-products of the applications of science and technology, such as are dealt with in technological or environmental assessments, for example, but also the roles played by science and technology in promoting or impeding the social and economic well-being of Canadians.
  • Social and cultural are understood to include the natural environment, but are not limited to encompassing environmental, health or safety issues, and include changes to the social fabric, to the skills profile and to the working lives of all Canadians.
  • Assessment refers to the many different approaches to the assessment of science and technology, and to a large literature debating the usefulness and limitations of various methodologies, including risk assessment, technology assessment, cost-benefit analysis and economic forecasting.
  • Mechanisms and practices refer to initiatives taken by, or in conjunction with, government to facilitate the assessment of science and technology. This includes, but is not limited to, public inquiries and royal commissions, task forces, special panels and advisory committees, regulatory hearings, formal hearings designed for assessment of major economic, social, regulatory or environmental initiatives, and governmental organizations specifically mandated to conduct assessments of science and technology on a continual or occasional basis.
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Overview of Analysis

It is all to easy to develop inappropriate expectations of both science and technology and of the mechanisms and practices for their assessment. Furthermore, without an overview, without constant monitoring of the environment and developments within it, and without rigorous evaluations of initiatives, it si quite likely that the benefits attributed to science and technology and their assessment will fail to materialize. Given the high level of dependence on science and technology which characterizes an advanced industrial economy such as Canada, this would be a serious problem.

Placing emphasis on mechanisms and practices seems to imply that an administrative solution lies in waiting to meet the needs of science policy. Whether one is speaking about risk assessment or about the promotion of science culture, it is all too easy to rely on models which, although increasingly sophisticated, are nonetheless confounded by the intransigent problems of melding science with public policy.

When responsibility for research is devolved to non-governmental bodies whose research reports are viewed as instruments for lobbying, when government research activities are curtailed and when consultation replaces research as the only method for conducting assessment of the social and cultural implications of science and technology, assessment itself is seriously compromised. However beneficial the devolution of research might be for other reasons, and however important consultation is as a form of research in its own right, there is still an urgent need for research, conducted according to scientific values, to be used as background information for developing the overview and evaluating the implications of science and technology.

It is worth emphasizing that the policy process is an iterative one for science policy no less than any other form of policy making. The multiplicity of committees, mechanisms and practices for assessment, review procedures, etc., can be evidence of wastefulness, but often it reflects the needs of the political and legal situations facing policy makers, and the many conflicting needs and demands of their various constituent publics. Costly and sometimes inefficient or even counter-productive, the array of mechanisms and practices for assessment of the social and cultural implications of science and technology is likely to remain in place.

That said, there is often a need for specific and timely advice about issues involving complex scientific or technical questions, and for "overview" statements which gauge the status of scientific and technological development in Canada in relation to the needs and dictates of the new economy and the general well-being of Canadians.

The primary focus of recent attention in the literature has been on the policy side of the equation, with many groups and analysts concerned that the policy implications of science and technology and questions about social values will be neglected, and that science and technology will themselves be seen as sufficient to meet the needs of Canadians. Theirs is a legitimate concern, and it has led to increasing emphasis on processes for assessment of the social and cultural implications of science and technology. Even these new processes have their shortcomings, however. They easily become venues for public controversies about symbolic issues or, alternatively, they demonstrate the worst aspects of adversary procedures: preoccupation with procedures over issues of substance, lack of adequate representation and undermining of democratic debate.

However, legitimate the concern with the policy side of the equation, there is equal reason to be concerned about the quality and quantity of the scientific and technical research being used in conjunction with public policy. As studies of mandated science demonstrate, processes for assessment are often characterized by scientific work which does not meet the rigorous standards of science and which involved scientists (among others) in making judgments only peripherally related to their expertise — ironically, the kinds of judgments actually required for public policy.

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Toward Recommendations

In the last two decades, a vast array of mechanisms and practices for assessment of science and technology have been put into place. Government departments now routinely draw on increasingly sophisticated methodologies for assessment, and the results are promising. That said, there are intrinsic problems in the mix of science and public policy, and controversies often erupt in spite of the best efforts of all concerned. Moreover, the best uses of assessment procedures depend on a highly rational administrative process, but the political process is never so rational that conflict, jurisdictional problems, procedural wrangling and political issues do not arise.

Suggestions included in this paper deal mainly with ways that the current assessment process might be better co-ordinated or supplemented to deal with the challenges posed by new developments in science and technology. They concern issues involving more than one agency or department of government and matters of such broad significance that an independent capacity for review is required.

Three arenas are identified in which the mechanisms and practices for social and cultural assessment take place. Each generates its own problems and requires its own recommendations.

Arena One: Assessing science and technology for the purpose of policy and regulation

To deal with the problems arising rom the mix of science and public policy imperatives, and to support more informed debate on scientifically complex issues of considerable public urgency, it is suggested that a new practice be instituted involving scientific focus groups, whose task it would be (unlike that of current consultative committees, task forces, advisory councils or expert committees used routinely by government departments) to comment on the "state of the art" in the scientific literature with respect to particular issues likely to be considered for assessment.

The task of such scientific focus groups would be a limited one: to comment only on what is know, not know, uncertain and highly contestable about such issues to aid in preparing adequate background information to support informed assessments. Their contribution would not supplant conventional assessments nor lead to recommendations, which are more properly handled within government or through use of expert or consultative committees, routine assessments procedures or, in special cases, through inquiries. The use of scientific focus groups would render priority setting exercises more effective and efficient. Their use would lay a foundation of credible information for debate, generating a higher level of public confidence in science and technology than is typical in controversies about scientifically complex issues. Scientific focus groups are relevant in both the natural and social sciences.

To establish such groups, a mechanism is necessary. Appropriate expertise must be located, a time frame set, a means of reporting established, etc. The paper argues that scientific focus groups must be, and be seen to be, independent of government departments. It discusses the advantages and disadvantages of using existing organizations in Canada, such as the disciplinary associations or independent research institutes, and of establishing something new to set up and oversee such focus groups.

Arena Two: Promoting science and technology

With respect to initiatives designed to promote science and technology, it si suggested that neither is there the basis for an adequate assessment of such initiatives (because exiting evaluations are not made public or published), nor has enough attention been paid to establishing benchmarks for their success. Efforts are required to locate and co-ordinate exiting evaluations and to provide an overview. The task to be done is difficult, and prior attempts to gain an overview have been inappropriately mandated and unsuccessful. A well-defined, delimited and strategically designed effort, focused mainly on evaluating initiatives to promote science and technology (as opposed to evaluating science development in particular areas), might prove more promising.

Arena Three: Assessing Canada's capabilities and position in the new economy

With respect to environmental scanning, that is the evaluation of Canada's position in relation to the new economy, there is even more serious need for a co-ordinated view. Some initiatives are promising, such as the regulatory review requirement embodied in the mandate of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the emergence of sectoral councils of one kind or another and the development of new independent research institutes specifically dedicated to the task of environmental scanning. In the best of circumstances, one organization would assume responsibility for environmental scanning and draw on other institutions, successful examples in other countries. In today's situation in Canada, it is unlikely — although not impossible — that any new organization with such a broad mandate will be established. In its absence, much more strategic use needs to be made of the resources and initiatives that do or might easily exist.

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Concluding Comments

Two last remarks reflect the preoccupations of the author of this paper. The first is a concern that the contributions of science not be compromised in the interests of promoting sound public policy, important though sound public policy may be.

In terms of assessment, scientists have a crucial but limited contribution to make. They can bring their expertise to bear to answer questions about what is known (with a reasonable degree of confidence), what is not known, what remains uncertain and what is subject to debate within any field and with respect to any issue. This is precisely the information needed by policy makers. But, all too often, scientists are called on to contribute to another debate, in this case about the implications of science and technology for particular policies under development. In the latter debate, scientists offer an informed view, but their expertise is not necessarily relevant to the types of questions being addressed.

Furthermore, scientists have no exclusive claim to expertise about the implications of their research, or of science in general. Occasionally, they are poorly prepared to offer useful insights because of the narrowness and rigour of their own work and expertise. In other words, while scientific assessment has an important contribution to make to public policy, it is crucial that the capacity of science to address policy-related questions not be overestimated or wrongly understood. The price of both is not just (or necessarily) poor public policies, it is sometimes poor science.

Second, while there is no one model of how scientific assessment should be done, especially with respect to new technologies and the new economy, there is ample room for change. There are many approaches to accomplish the goal of assessment of the social and cultural implications of science and technology, and, indeed, there are now many examples of successful efforts in this regard. In tody's political climate, it is safe to assume that whatever is put into place will involve both consultation and research, and will probably develop partly outside departments of government. Anything put into place should probably also be reasonably independent, not just of government but of policy research institutes associated in the public mind (properly or not) with particular political perspectives. Anything put into place should enhance the assessment capacity of government and its many constituents without adding to their administrative burden or to the cacophony of public controversy. The initiatives discussed in this paper offer promising avenues of approach, but they do not exhaust the possibilities.

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