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From Bio to Nano: Learning From The Past to Shape the Future of Technology Assessment

Publication Date
  • Nanotechnology
  • Biotechnology
  • Technology Assessment
  • Law
  • Criminology & Political Science :: Political Science
  • Public Administration & International Relations [E08]
  • Droit
  • Criminologie & Sciences Politiques :: Sciences Politiques
  • Administration Publique & Relations Internationales [E08]
  • Communication
  • History
  • Physics
  • Political Science


In many Western countries over the last 35 years, the quest for more scientific governance on <br />crucial technological issues led to a broadening of the political world’s sphere of competences. <br />Indeed, various countries decided that dealing with global, invisible, irreversible and irreparable <br />risks had to be handled by an appropriate tool of management of technological innovations. So the <br />usefulness to institutionalize parliamentary Technology Assessment (PTA) offices emerged. <br />Nowadays, PTA is an instrument particularly suitable to study the new shape of science and <br />society’s interface and it represents a remarkable attempt to reform the institutional settings of <br />innovation. <br />However, while the overall uncertainty surrounding science and technology has been used by public <br />actors like parliamentarians or ministers in the past to legitimize a first generation of PTAs, the <br />emergence of a second generation in the 1990’s – centred on the constructive, interactive or <br />participatory TA approches – emphazises the co-evolution of technology and society rather than the <br />former linear determinist rationale. In this context, the STS community of scholars is increasingly <br />called upon by the public authorities to provide a “professional service role” (RIP, 1994), that is to <br />say to take a step into action out of the border of their intellectual engagement. <br />Then, we suggest to compare two successive periods by looking at the institutional management of <br />two distinct-but-complementary technological issues: biotechnology and nanotechnology. The <br />former has been taken into account by public actors at a time when the second generation of PTAs <br />was not yet rooted in the political practices. Thus, the management of the public debate related to <br />biotechnology has been characterized by a lack of sensitive, fruitful and interactive communication <br />between the stakeholders involved in the TA process, while the first applications were already being <br />commercialized. On the other hand, the latter is currently being tackled at a moment when the social <br />shaping of technology is widely acknowledged as well as the STS community may be invited to <br />pass from observation to participation in the political sphere. Given the uncertainty and complexity <br />encircling nanotechnology as well as its huge potential in many interconnected disciplinary fields, <br />the need to avoid the pitfall of the biotechnology’s experience is commonly accepted. <br />We offer to take nanotechnology as one of the most challenging technological issue to look beyond <br />the biotechnology’s roadblock and to show in which proportion the same scenario is reasonably <br />thinkable today, in order to spotlight whether we have learnt from the past in considering what is <br />1 <br />sometimes called “a new industrial revolution”. <br />We will raise some research questions like: how different are current TA practices as compared to <br />former ones? Are there new regimes emerging? Given the current technological convergence, how <br />complicated would it be to deal with NBIC technologies if we missed the point with biotechnology <br />alone? How suitable is PTA to engage in such interdisciplinary issues? Are we assisting the <br />emergence of a third PTA generation around the growing role of the STS community? How does <br />this scientific community dialogue with the historians of science who analyzed the earlier industrial <br />revolutions?

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