Controversies as Governing Processes in Technology Assessment

  • Cambrosio A
  • Limoges C
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The argument that controversies serve as an informal method of TA was made by Mazur in 1981, who argued that in the process issues are filtered so that those with little substance are dropped. The authors believe that seeing controversies as social TA is well-founded, but that it is important to go further: what is unusual, or should be seen as 'borderline', are cases where there is no public controversy and TA is purely expert driven. Formal TA is defined through controversy, and cannot replace or limit controversies. Presents the history of the biotech debate in the US and its two phases: 1974-1981, concern over laboratory safety, and 1982- (present) concern about the field release of GMOs. Argues that in the second phase, industry, though concerned about regulatory overreaction, also saw regulation as necessary to limit liability. Their main argument is that controversies cannot be reduced to different perceptions of risk or that controversies are over the content, ie the information. More information or 'public education' does not end controversies. Instead, they argue that controversies are over contexts, ie that they are contingent upon local conditions. Otherwise, there would be no explanation of why the same public pool of scientific knowledge produces different results/controversies in different countries. In the US, the legal structure of TA and regulation helps to create the particular types of controversies which form there - 'regulatory devices are central' (391). "to assert that information settles or prevents controversies is contrary to what can be observed of the dynamics of controversies and remains naive" (388). Comments that 'there is no singular force which can be labelled 'scientific experts', but it is also not clear to what the term 'public' refers (388). It is usually used rhetorically in controversies. The public does not intervene in controversies, but instead spokespersons claiming to act on behalf of the public or of their group. Controversies are also polycentric, with many different groups involved. [Perhaps the dichotomy of experts/public is of use to regulatory conservatives because of the assumption that the public is badly informed, whereas counter groups may not be. Probably very complex dynamics here, because industry will also appeal to the 'public's' common sense]. Closure does not occur through consensus, but through public decision making to reach socially acceptable decisions: "controversies are not primarily battles of ideas, but rather processes aimed at decisions for action" (391). Closure occurs, not through consensus, but when the opponents realise that the odds are against them and that "arguing for or maintaining their particular point has become too 'expensive' in terms of resources or credibility" (391).

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  • Alberto Cambrosio

  • Camille Limoges

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