A new case study from Evan Michelson, of the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, looks at the work of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) amidst the shift from government-led technology assessment.
The paper, recently published in the Review of Policy Research, looks at the role non-governmental organizations like PEN play in technology assessment and how groups like PEN bring together different experts and organizations.
PEN, part of the Wilson Center’s Science & Technology Innovation Program (STIP), was established in 2005 to help ensure that as nanotechnologies advance, possible risks are minimized, public and consumer engagement remains strong, and the potential benefits of these new technologies are realized. The Pew Charitable Trusts initially funded the project, which continues to be funded through STIP.
Michelson’s paper looks at PEN’s role in technology assessment in the wake of the 1995 closing of Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment and how the project’s work illustrates a trend away from government-led technology assessment towards a greater focus on assessment led by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
PEN particularly garnered attention for its Consumer Products Inventory, which tracked the appearance of products in the marketplace that contained or claimed to contain nanoscale materials.
Michelson says that the project’s work “provides insights about how the idea of anticipatory governance can be put into practice and operationalized.” He continues, “For example, the importance of finding ways to make the future relevant in the present is an important lesson, as indicated by PEN receiving the greatest amount of attention for its analysis of near-term applications of nanotechnology in consumer products.”
The paper says PEN illustrates the growing importance of NGOs in technology assessment roles that used to be led by government, raising a number of key questions. “For instance, if non-governmental organizations are playing an increasingly active role in shaping policy decisions, then how are democratically elected leaders responding to these influences?” he writes. “How can these nongovernmental institutions be held accountable to the public? Who, if anybody, should be responsible for anticipating the long-term, societal implications of new technologies?”