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Scientific Foresight in the European Parliament – an approach for anticipating impacts of future techno-scientific trends

Written by Lieve Van Woensel and Darja Vrščaj

We live in a technological culture, where technology and science are deeply integrated in all structures of our society, from those directly connected to technology and science, such as communication and mobility, to the less obvious aspects, such as norms, values and identity.

Techno-scientific innovations are often designed to make our lives ‘easier’, or to solve some societal issues. For example, cars and airplanes decrease our travelling time, while the internet and mobile phones enable us to stay connected and share knowledge globally. However, technologies often have unintended and unwanted impacts. Cars pollute the environment and cause accidents, and the internet has changed our identity, language and forms of communication and what we value in personal relationships.

Technologies also have soft impacts, which can often not be calculated in a way that, for example, health risks can, or impacts which do not show a direct link between cause and effect, making it impossible to determine who should be held responsible for such impacts. For example, autonomous cars promise a greater fuel and time efficiency, and greater safety of the drivers and pedestrians. But, who is to be held responsible for possible damages and security failures when your child is driven to school alone?

©Eugene Sergeev

©Eugene Sergeev

The Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel decided at the end of the 7th legislature to pursue the recognition of STOA’s mission as a permanent scientific advisory structure of the European Parliament with an explicit Foresight role in Science and Technology. This provided the ground for the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) to establish a Scientific Foresight Service within the Scientific Foresight (STOA) Unit.

In the publication entitled Towards Scientific Foresight for the European Parliament we present a framework consisting of six steps for the Scientific Foresight approach to be used in the European Parliament. This framework focuses on the above-mentioned emerging concerns that techno-scientific innovations could cause in the long-term future. Specifically, it focuses on the societal impacts, including soft impacts, and therefore encourages the European Parliament to bridge the gap between society and policy on techno-scientific issues. The approach was discussed by the STOA Panel in its meeting of 15 January 2015 in Strasbourg for incorporating Members’ feedback.

Beyond this, the Scientific Foresight Service will regularly analyse techno-scientific trends in order to raise awareness about the possible societal and legislative implications and their consequences. Foresight in this context includes a critical review of the goals of the European Parliament’s activities, keeping in mind Member States’ and global political agendas.

Second, EP Scientific Foresight studies are of a strategic nature, assessing legislative pathways for the MEPs to realize a range of several possible futures. The ultimate aim of the Foresight studies is to support informed decision-making by MEPs. The studies will allow MEPs to consider a broad range of possible long-term outcomes of techno-scientific innovations; understand the relevance of present actions for desirable futures; and align decisions with anticipation of the possible, and desirable, long-term future outcomes during the agenda-setting and forward-planning phase of the legislative cycle.

The Scientific Foresight approach is an attempt to introduce Foresight as an in-house activity in the European Parliament. To take the approach forward the impact of the first few pilot projects will be thoroughly assessed. This will inform future use of the Foresight methodology. In order to seek further feedback from the wider Foresight community, an article presenting the methodology will be submitted to an appropriate, peer-reviewed journal.

About Scientific Foresight (STOA)

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) carries out interdisciplinary research and provides strategic advice in the field of science and technology options assessment and scientific foresight. It undertakes in-depth studies and organises workshops on developments in these fields, and it hosts the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the EP, the scientific community and the media. All this work is carried out under the guidance of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), composed of 25 MEPs nominated by nine EP Committees. The STOA Panel forms an integral part of the structure of the EP.

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