Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / August 24, 2015

‘What if …?’, an EPRS publication on techno-scientific issues for non-experts

Written by Lieve Van Woensel and Guillermo Garrido-Lestache This year the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) launched a new series of…

gustavofrazao / Fotolia
Written by Lieve Van Woensel and Guillermo Garrido-Lestache

This year the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) launched a new series of publications on techno-scientific trends and how these could change our lives. The first selection of ten techno-scientific trends was compiled in a single publication entitled ‘Ten technologies which could change our lives – Potential impacts and policy implications’. The second report in this series is due to be published later this year.

New technologies (what if?)
gustavofrazao / Fotolia

In the meantime, the Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) regularly produces ‘at a glance’ publications entitled ‘What if …?’, each of which provides an overview of one specific technological trend. The first of these publications, ‘What if your shopping were delivered by drones?’, appeared in May 2015. Each publication in this series consists of four sections. First, it provides an overview and description of the technology in question. This is followed by a summary of ongoing developments and expectations, based on the work and views of researchers, academics and enterprises. The next section is an exploration of the possible ethical and societal concerns and the unexpected impacts which may arise if the technology takes hold in society. Finally, there is a section on anticipatory law-making, which provides legislative pathways on how to mitigate the negative, unexpected and unavoidable impacts of the particular technology.

The concept and structure of this series was developed by the newly created Scientific Foresight Service within the Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA), which has also developed an approach for Scientific Foresight in and for the European Parliament. The approach brings together different types of experts, in order to identify and consider a wider range of issues, including ethical and societal impacts of new technologies on our society. This is key if we want to better envision the possible implications of technological trends and develop more realistic and diverse future scenarios. Hence, it produces more robust policy options, based upon scientific advice put into a societal context, so as to reach desirable futures and avoid undesirable ones. Our explanatory video provides a quick overview of the approach.

The series of techno-scientific trends publications have been designed as teasers and awareness-raisers, intended to spark debate and ideas about new technologies amongst Members of the European Parliament. This will enable Members to come up with precise and relevant questions on these issues, which will in turn result in more precise and relevant answers and policy options provided to the Members, through the carrying out of Scientific Foresight projects on these issues. Accordingly, the topics for the ‘What if …? series are chosen based on their relevance for EU politics, citizens and national constituencies. For instance, as mentioned above, the first ‘What if…?’ publication was on drones (otherwise known as remotely piloted aerial vehicles, RPAS). This technology has experienced a recent burst of interest, concerns and legislative issues, due to its increasing use and availability.

Starting in September 2015, there will be a new ‘What if …?’ every month, to keep drawing attention to different technological trends, as they become more relevant to society as a whole and to lawmakers specifically. The scheduled titles and topics for the next publications in the ‘What if…?’ series are the following:

  • What if synthetic biology allowed us to create life? (on synthetic biology)
  • What if others could know what you think? (on brain-computer interfaces)

These publications will be made available online on the EPRS blog and the STOA website, and in a printed version, so as to be easily accessible to everyone who may be interested in the topics.

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  • Thank you for this creative technology assessment series…just a quick comment re drones – I think it is essential to mention the imperative towards autonomous systems and what that will mean. The UN CCW panel last May had a meeting exploring the option to ban weaponized drone systems which were not under meaningful human control. Further information can be found on

    Best wishes
    Steve Wright

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