I would like to describe a social technology that my colleagues at Arizona State University (ASU) and I call “real-time technology assessment,” which is the core intellectual idea and practice behind the recently created and NSF-funded Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State (CNS-ASU).
Real-time technology assessment (RTTA) is a social technology that relies on fundamental understandings of the social, moral, political, and economic dynamics of knowledge-based innovation that have developed over the past three decades. These understandings reveal the complex, value-laden choices in knowledge production and application. The goal of RTTA is to redesign knowledge production and application to make these choices more explicit, informed, transparent, accountable, and participatory.
At CNS-ASU, RTTA combines problem-oriented empirical research and dynamics of nanotechnology with research on and engagement with the values that both nanoscale science and engineering (NSE) researchers and various publics hold. By creating opportunities for researchers and members of the public to reflect on those values (and on their interactions themselves), CNS-ASU hopes to 1) anticipate socio-technical developments so that more effective deliberation and social learning can occur earlier in the innovation process, and 2) increase the likelihood that decisions and outcomes will be more attuned to the needs and aspirations of the broader society.
In the mid-1970s, the research community in the United States incorporated a new social technology, lodged in Institutional Review Boards and framed by informed consent, aimed at preventing the abuse of human research subjects. In the 1980s, the university research community incorporated a new social technology, lodged in offices of technology transfer and framed by intellectual property as a measure of economic contribution, aimed at improving the connection between academic research and some of society’s economic aspirations.
What I envision for NSE and other emerging technologies is that the public and private sector research communities will incorporate a new social technology, lodged in diverse collaborations for research, education, and engagement and framed by the reflexive approach to innovation articulated by RTTA, aimed at improving the vast array of economic and noneconomic connections between research and societal outcomes.
David Guston is professor of political science and associate director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is also director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS-ASU), an NSF-designated Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center. CNS-ASU is beginning the first year of its five-year, $6.2 million grant from NSF to explore the societal implications of nanotechnologies.
Guston's book, Between Politics and Science: Assuring the Integrity and Productivity of Research, won the 2002 Don K. Price Prize from the American Political Science Association for best book about science and technology policy.
Guston is the North American editor of the peer-reviewed journal Science and Public Policy, and he is co-vice chair of the 2006 Gordon Research Conference on Science and Technology Policy.
In 2002, he was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and he is the current chair of the AAAS Section on Societal Impacts of Science and Engineering.
Guston holds a bachelor's degree from Yale University and a PhD from MIT. He did his postdoctoral training at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
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