Photo by Joseph Hu, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019.

Ethics in Technology Assessment

Incorporating Ethics into Technology Assessment,” by Zach Graves & Robert Cook-Deegan (Issues, Fall 2019),very crisply illustrates a key issue facing American government today, especially Congress. Though the authors were too polite in their quasi-dismissal of Peter Theil’s controversial hypothesis of a technology “innovation slowdown” (the evidence is anecdotal at best), even with a reduced pace of innovation, those already advancing quickly—such as artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, the internet of things, quantum computing, autonomous vehicles, big data mining, hypersonic weapons, hydraulic fracturing, and gene editing technology, to name but a few—present formidable challenges both in reaping their rewards to society and in coping with their often complicated and value-challenging consequences.

The authors were too polite in their quasi-dismissal of Peter Theil’s controversial hypothesis of a technology “innovation slowdown” (the evidence is anecdotal at best).

As the authors predict, there are many risky ways to build “ethical analysis into technology assessment.” But the fundamental design by which the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) accomplished this with an increasingly effective process that evolved over decades, as the authors illustrate with several examples, avoids much of that risk by “informing the debate” rather than dictating a solution that hinges on value choices and trade-offs. The authors conclude that the original OTA model, subject to modernization after a quarter of a century, is still a very robust one, as illustrated by its replication in nations worldwide. Modernization of a restored OTA could accelerate the agency’s response time, improve the efficiency of assembling essential and the most current information in carrying out technology assessments, expand the ability to convene the best external and staff experts to participate in the agency’s work, and improve outreach and access to the agency’s services and badly needed expertise to members and staff across Capitol Hill.

Restoring an OTA is but a first step, albeit an important one. Building the capability envisioned with the Government Accountability Office’s Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team could have an important role as well, focusing performance audits on evaluating management of the ever-growing part of the nation’s science and technology enterprise managed by the federal government. Reinvesting in the expertise resident in the congressional committees of jurisdiction, in the capabilities of the readily accessible resource of Congressional Research Service, and in more widely utilizing the fresh insights of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s science and technology fellows can all play important roles in restoring Congress’s capacity for understanding and shaping the accelerating role of science and technology in virtually all aspects of modern life.

Distinguished Senior Fellow
Schar School of Policy and Government
George Mason University

Zach Graves and Robert Cook-Deegan rightly call attention to Congress’s need for more technical expertise and for the need to incorporate ethics into the practice of technology assessment (TA)—a historically important vehicle for providing such expertise. Both needs are evident, even if the role that ethics plays in TA, and technical expertise in general, too often goes ignored in policy circles.

The challenges and opportunities posed by technological and scientific developments today are widely discussed, as is, increasingly, Congress’s lack of preparedness to grapple with them. Meanwhile, the social and ethical implications of such developments, in such diverse areas as autonomous vehicles and gene editing, provide ample fodder for popular and academic discourse. All the more surprising, then, is the relative absence of such considerations among TA advocates.

TA has always been understood in at least two distinct ways. First, TA is construed as expert advice—providing lawmakers with technically sound information to inform the policy-making process. Understood in this way, TA need not incorporate ethical considerations.

Second, TA is a means of shoring up democratic control of science and technology. TA arose at a time of increasing awareness of the social and ethical—especially environmental—implications of scientific and technological change. The creation of the Office of Technology Assessment was partly a response to the growing sense that citizens and their representatives—as opposed to executive agencies—must be better positioned to wrestle with the scientific and technological challenges and opportunities facing society. Understood in this way, TA is inherently value-laden, since its purpose is to respond to ethical and even political imperatives.

These two views of TA are not incompatible; after all, consideration of the ethics of science and technology requires expert knowledge. But, taken together, they are incompatible with a “linear” view of expertise, according to which technical knowledge is formulated in a value-free context and then transferred over into the value-laden realm of politics. The historical origins and practice of OTA belie this view.

Graves and Cook-Deegan are right to insist that ethics should play a more prominent role in discussions about—and in the practice of—TA. And they are also right to insist that incorporating ethics, or values generally, need not require abandoning TA’s classical commitment to disinterestedness and nonpartisanship. By bringing value judgments and ethical disagreements more clearly to the fore, TA may facilitate a fairer and more transparent kind of deliberation about scientific and technical problems. In so doing, technology assessment would not be importing an alien practice so much as recognizing the ineliminable role that values play in the formulation of technical expertise.

Director of Science Policy
R Street Institute

Graves and Cook-Deegan pin a deterioration of Congress’s ability to grapple with science and technology (S&T) issues on deep staff cuts and elimination of the Office of Technology Assessment. This thinned-out legislative workforce, they argue, compromises Congress’s readiness to grasp the implications of innovations and trails executive branch and private sector capacities, posing risks for the country. They call for upgrading Congress’s S&T advice and internalizing ethical inquiry into technology assessment. While more in-house expertise can undoubtedly help Congress conduct legislative matters more effectively and with greater insight, internalizing ethical inquiry into technology assessment needs more scrutiny on institutional, ethical, and political grounds.

First, is technological assessment better suited than other deliberative processes for navigating ethical considerations? Negotiating legislative priorities in a pluralistic society can be challenging, even when conducted in good faith. Congress represents a diverse society, making critical policy decisions involving multiple values, forms of knowledge, and constituencies. Public trust in Congress’s role provides the impetus for democratic pressure that it live up to constitutional aspirations. Asserting “dysfunction” of Congress and describing closure of OTA as a “lobotomy,” as Graves and Cook-Deegan do, promotes cynicism and devalues nontechnical kinds of knowledge that legislative processes legitimately include. Cynicism can be corrosive, fueling a vicious cycle of low expectations and poor performance that frays the fabric of governance in ways that no S&T advice can offset. The benefits of better S&T advice depend on a functional legislative body and public trust in the value of demanding that it be such.

Second, does incorporating ethics into technology assessment necessarily improve the ethics of S&T decisions? “Ethics” refers to systematic ways of sorting through good and bad or right and wrong; there are multiple coherent systems for working through such questions. For example, aiming to harm the fewest people is an ethical stance, but not the only one. Whose or which ethics should prevail? Offering what the authors call an “explicit framing of the value choices” or “fairly presenting different sides of an ethical dilemma” could be an aspect of technological assessment, but systematic methods of ethical inquiry that align with scientific assessment run the risk of incrementally leading to a kind of tailoring that becomes mutually reinforcing.

Third, is a broader remit for technology assessment feasible given tight budgets and political support for targeted S&T advice? Technology assessments of broad scope and depth require experts from many fields, and that takes additional time and managerial sophistication. Comprehensive assessments of issues before Congress won OTA staunch supporters, but critics claimed that the agency strayed from a technology focus and that reports took too long to produce. Support for new and improved S&T advice within Congress seems oriented toward short and medium-term efforts.

Augmenting S&T capacity for Congress points to the value of “looking beyond the technical aspects,” in Graves and Cook-Deegan’s words, and consultative mechanisms that illuminate ethical dimensions of policy options seem likely to be extremely beneficial. Internalizing ethical inquiry into assessment methods, however, risks a variety of perverse institutional and ethical outcomes and conflicts with current political tolerances.

Professor of Practice, School for the Future of Innovation in Society
Arizona State University

Graves and Cook-Deegan do an excellent job of explaining the importance of including ethical considerations within technology assessment (TA). I would like to add several points.

First, considering ethical impacts is essential but insufficient for grappling with the normative dimensions of technological innovation. Ethical analysis tends to focus on the impact of innovation on individual people or groups, while overlooking impacts on the basic structure of society. An example: an anticipatory ethical analysis of the interstate highway system might have weighed the value of speedy personal transport against the danger of fatal vehicle crashes. But would it have considered that the voracious demand for gasoline would provide a rationale for expanding US military capabilities in the Middle East, contributing to establishing the politically powerful military-industrial complex of which President Dwight Eisenhower warned in 1961? Ethical analysis is crucial, but so is analysis of technologies’ structural social impacts.

An anticipatory ethical analysis of the interstate highway system might have weighed the value of speedy personal transport against the danger of fatal vehicle crashes. But would it have considered that the voracious demand for gasoline would provide a rationale for expanding US military capabilities in the Middle East?

Second, TA as we have known it focuses on the social impacts of individual innovations, such as driverless cars or smartphones. But the effects of technologies on the basic texture and structure of society are typically a product of synergistic interactions among complexes of seemingly unrelated technologies. An example: face-to-face community life in the United States has been attenuated over time by the combination of air conditioners and TVs that lure people off their front stoops on hot summer days, suburbs built without sidewalks, smartphones that keep people’s eyes glued to their small screens, and so on. Studying the ethical and social impacts of individual technologies is important, but so is assessing the synergistic effects of technological complexes.

Finally, Graves and Cook-Deegan mention the value of enrolling stakeholder representatives in TA, but they overlook the importance of also involving laypeople who are not members of organized stakeholder groups. Stakeholders such as an environmentalist, a corporate chief executive, and a labor organizer will each bring a crucial value orientation to the table, but experience shows that neither individually nor collectively will they call attention to the types of structural social impacts that I have been highlighting. In contrast, methods of participatory technology assessment that have been pioneered in Europe over the past three decades—such as citizen-based consensus conferences—tend to do a better job in this regard. Such methods have now been implemented many times in the United States, including by the nongovernmental Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) network.

Experts and stakeholders bring along a robust base of technical knowledge and well-honed analytical capabilities. But lay participants in a well-structured TA process often add heart-and-mind human, ethical, and political-power considerations from which the experts shy away or in which they are simply inexpert.

To be fair, Graves and Cook-Deegan are considering the real-world political challenges involved in reestablishing a national TA capability. Incorporating structural social analysis within TA might (or might not) pose risks to the enterprise—but omitting such analysis guarantees that Congress will remain poorly informed about some of technologies’ most profound social repercussions. That said, even a nonideal technology assessment agency would be far better than none.

Cofounder of ECAST
Author of
Reinventing Technology Assessment: A 21st Century Model (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2010)

Cite this Article

“Ethics in Technology Assessment.” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 2 (Winter 2020).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Winter 2020