Technology Assessment in Germany and Other European Countries

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From its mid-1970s origins, technology assessment (TA) in Germany and in Western Europe has been presented as a methodical, ethical, and theological as well as natural-, engineering- and social-science-oriented reflection on the technological preconditions for the formation and design of modern societies and the impacts of technology on such societies. TA analyzes both the development of technologies and the entities that have the competence, resources, and strategic potential to create them. Using prediction procedures, decision-theory approaches, and model simulations—all of which resemble economic models—the goal is to raise awareness of the desired and undesired, synergetic, and cumulative consequences of new technologies, if possible before they become issues of public debate. TA further aims to reveal the basic values underlying any assessment.

Representative Institutions

Understood as a form of political counseling, a series of TA institutions were founded by some Western European parliaments. Among these institutions are the following:

  • Scientific and Technical Options Assessment (STOA), by the European Parliament (1985)
  • Office Parlementaire d'évaluation des choix scientifiques et technologiques (OPECST), France (1983)
  • Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag (TAB) or Office of Technology Assessment at the German Parliament (1990)
  • Rathenau Institute, Netherlands (1986)
  • Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), United Kingdom (1989)

There are also parliamentary institutions in Denmark, Austria, Finland, Belgium, Greece, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, and Spain, which in the near future will join this circle of parliamentary counselors in the cooperative European Parliamentary Technology Assessment (EPTA). Some Eastern European countries, in particular Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, have also established independent TA institutions. Of the independent institutions founded in Germany, of particular interest is the Institut für Technikfolgenabschätzung und Systemanalyse (ITAS or Institute for TA and System Analysis) of the Karlsruhe Research Center (RZE), a member of the Helmholz-Gemeinschaft Deutscher Forschungszentren (Helmholz Association of National Research Centers), the largest scientific organization in Germany. ITAS is also the operating authority of TAB. ITAS publishes the only significant TA journal in Germany titled TA in Theory and Practice.

Two major research institutes in the Helmholtz Community Association of National Research Centers among those that conduct projects on sustainability research relating to TA, should be mentioned: Forschungszentrum Jülich (Juelich Research Institute) and the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DRL) (German Center for Aviation and Space Flight), Cologne. Another national organization is the European Academy for Research on the Consequences of Scientific/Technical Development, which is located in Bad Neuenahr and primarily supported by the state of Rhineland Palatinate and by the DLR. It is less technology-transfer oriented than, for example, the ITAS or TAB because its research is focused more on basic questions concerning the acceptability of technology use as an element of forward-looking policies. The Academy for TA, founded in Stuttgart in 1991, was closed by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia at the end of 2003. This was a severe setback for TA research in Germany, in particular because the academy had an impressive public profile as a result of its efforts to link socially relevant discourse with areas of science, economics, and politics.

Research Themes

Among the important TA topics in Germany, sustainability dominates current research. Indeed efforts are aimed at institutionalizing the principles of sustainable development at all levels of national and transnational political systems.

In addition to biotechnology (as related to agriculture, pharmacy, textiles, and food), research into gene technology, diagnostics, and therapy are at the center of public interest. In Germany discussions have concentrated on the fields of biomedicine, and in particular on the ethical justification of research using human embryos and preimplantation diagnoses (PID). Stem-cell research is examined in terms of future application to tissue and organ regeneration. The acquisition of stem cells from embryos, or so-called therapeutic cloning, is the subject of numerous investigations. The compatibility of biomedical developments with the principle of human dignity as defined by the German basic law (or constitution) and the EU constitution is an especially important issue.

The development of nanotechnology is also of interest, especially because this field has frequently been presented as a key technology for the twenty-first century. Applications of nanotechnology are projected in the fields of space flight, agriculture, information processing, and medicine. The implementation of nanotechnology materials is discussed in relation to ecological and medical issues.

In the context of the process of globalization—especially in university research projects—there are TA questions about the consequences and effects of the virtualization of social life—politics, economics, ecology, culture, and law. With regard to politics, studies have focused on e-government, electronic democracy, and the dismantling of nation-states. With regard to economics, TA has concerned itself mainly with the transformation of work. In addition, TA continues to address classic issues such as traffic, new energy sources (nuclear fusion), privatization of health systems, pharmacology, food technology, multimedia technology, and information or data processing.


The German and European TA landscape deserves evaluation on the basis of the following: Have the numerous TA activities had any influence? If so, what kind of influence have they had on technological developments and on related underlying decisions? Technological Assessment in Europe: Between Method and Impact (2003), a study by ITAS and the European Academy, is a useful guide in answering these questions. This study presents a typology of three types of impacts: the generation of knowledge; the alteration of opinions and forms of behavior; and the initiation of action.

The study concludes that: "Based on the typology of the impacts on TA it is shown that the impacts of TA present more than just the direct influences of political decisions ... TA—independent of whether it is more classically scientific or participatory—contributes in various ways to society's communication process and to the political decision process: Through the preparation of a balanced basis of knowledge, through the initiation of a new discussion in a gridlock situation, through the working out of new perspectives on a problem" (Decker and Ladikas 2004, p. 78).

Finally the report of the European Science and Technology Observatory (ESTO), an association of twenty European institutions, should be mentioned. In 2002 at the direction of the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (JRC-IPTS) of the European Commission, ESTO produced an overview of technology-forecasting activities in Europe.

This working document arose within the frame of the ESTO project "Monitoring of Technology Forecasting Activities," funded by the Joint Research Center Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (JRC-IPTS) of the European Commission. This project was part of a larger ESTO monitoring activity, which ran from February 2000 until June 2001. The main results of this ESTO activity are published in "Strategic Policy Intelligence: Current Trends, the State of Play Perspectives, IPTS Technical Report series, EUR 20137 EN.


SEE ALSO Discourse Ethics; German Perspectives.


Decker, Michael, and Miltos Ladikas. (2004). "EU: Procekt: Technology Assessment in Germany; Between Method and Impact (TAMI)."Technikfolgenabschätzung 1(13): 71ff.

European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC). (2002). Monitoring of Technology Forecasting Activities—ESTO Project Report. Düsseldorf, Germany: VDI Technology Center, Future Technologies Division.

Graf von Westphalen, Raban, ed. (1999). Technikfolgenabschätzung als politische Aufgabe, 3rd edition. Munich, Germany: Oldenbourg Verlag. An overview of methods and mode of operations based on case studies.

Grunwald, Armin. (2002). Technikfolgenabschätzung—eine Einfülrung. Berlin: Edition Sigma. The best German language introduction in the field of technical-impact assessment.

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Technology Assessment in Germany and Other European Countries

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Technology Assessment in Germany and Other European Countries