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Values in Emerging Technology Impact Assessment

Project launched in July 2014

Principal Investigator: Gregory Kaebnick

Co-investigators: Michael Gusmano, Karen Maschke

Funder: National Science Foundation

Project Background

There is near-universal agreement that the development and application of potentially powerful emerging technologies should be grounded on a thoughtful evaluation of the benefits and harms that the technology might generate. There is considerable disagreement and confusion, however, about how a thoughtful evaluation should be undertaken. In particular, it is not clear what the role of values is in the evaluation of an emerging technology. Risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis are sometimes represented as being objective, even “value free.” But they are also sometimes viewed as supporting special interests under the cloak of “objectivity”; in particular, they are sometimes seen as exemplifying a “proactionary” orientation that favors science and industry.

This project will articulate and examine the role of values in formal impact assessment mechanisms, particularly in cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment for calculating the risks and benefits of emerging technologies. It will ask whether values can or should be eliminated from these mechanisms, and if not, whether we can clarify what the appropriate values are and the role they should play in the analysis. The method in the project is to apply these mechanisms to well-defined cases in synthetic biology, drawing on a team of experts to help carry out and evaluate the application.

Goals and Impact:

The project is intended to improve the understanding and use of impact assessment mechanisms, advance scholarly debates about the precautionary principle and related topics, and facilitate policy-making (and public understanding of it) on synthetic biology. Collectively, these goals contribute to the growing effort to develop strategies that ensure the governance of emerging technologies aligns appropriately with the public’s values. The project will consist of two meetings of a working group, technical advisors, and a technology governance advisor. Products will include a report that examines the role of values in formal impact assessment mechanisms, an additional report on how impact assessment mechanisms square with the recommendation by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues for “prudent vigilance” in policy on synthetic biology and other emerging biotechnologies, and scholarly papers reassessing the debate about proactionary versus precautionary approaches to policy-making.