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Making Policies about Emerging Technologies

Can we make wise policy decisions about still-emerging technologies—decisions that are grounded in facts yet anticipate unknowns and promote the public’s preferences and values? There is a widespread feeling that we should try. There also seems to be widespread agreement that the central element in wise decisions is the assessment of benefits and costs, understood as a process that consists, at least in part, in measuring, tallying, and comparing how different outcomes would affect the public interest. But how benefits and costs are best weighed when making decisions about whether to move forward with an emerging technology is not clear. Many commentators feel that the weighing is often inadequate or inappropriate. Those who argue for a “precautionary” approach to the weighing do so precisely because they feel the need for a restraint on the dominant decision-making tools and processes for assessing outcomes.

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