The Swiss Foundation for Technology Assessment is called TA-SWISS in its short form. It fulfils its assignment to carry out technology assessment in doing studies and participative projects since 1999, according to the Swiss federal law, but its history has started in 1992 already.
Switzerland is known for its direct democracy. Citizens can participate in decision making with regard to their individual and their communal life. However, those who have felt the need for an institution carrying out technology assessment (TA) have formed a different opinion: »In our developed democracy it is possible to vote on milk prices but ... not on the great challenges ... as for instance the adoption (or the renunciation) of new technologies«, explains René Longet, a former National assembly member. It was Longet who demanded an institutionalised technology assessment in order to encourage public debate on science and society, technology and democracy.
In 1991, the Swiss Science and Technology Council (SSTC) was granted a mandate to originate a technology assessment programme for the years 1992 to 1995. The SSTC was assigned to the Federal Department of Home Affairs (Eidgenössisches Departement des Innern, EDI). After a successful test phase, the mandate was extended and became statutory as part of the Swiss federal law on scientific research (Schweizerisches Bundesgesetz über die Forschung). Thereby, technology assessment was definitely accepted into the scope statement of the SSTC. Another amendment followed in 2007. The issue of the administrative affiliation of TA-SWISS was taken up again. As in a few other European countries, technology assessment was entrusted to the academies of sciences, in this case to the Swiss Academies of Art and Sciences (Akademien der Wissenschaften Schweiz). Since January 1, 2008, TA-SWISS has become a centre of excellence and an organisation unit of its own within the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. This independence has been formally acknowledge by TA-SWISS becoming a foundation in October 2016. A foundation council with six members representing the political and academic world is now responsible for the overall management of TA-SWISS.
TA-SWISS looks back onto an eventful history – and has been able to celebrate its 20th anniversary on October 29, 2012. During these 20 years, it has always been of utmost importance for TA to be performed independently of political and economic interests. This is still the highest premise today. State funding allows for the basic financing of TA-SWISS. Additionally, there is third-party funding by independent organisations. In this way, the infrastructure and the personnel of the TA-SWISS office comprising five fulltime jobs is financed. Additionally, project-specific mandates that are assigned to external interdisciplinary research groups and the organisation and execution of participative projects are remunerated by these means.
TA-SWISS acts jointly with renowned national or international research institutes or specialized departments. The assignment of a project to a research group works as follows: The specific TA aspects are clearly stated in the call for tender regarding the specific project; correspondingly, the received offers are evaluated according to these criteria. The TA-SWISS executive committee (TA-SWISS-Leitungsausschuss, LA), composed of roughly 15 members with totally different professional competences and institutional backgrounds, decides whether a project will be carried out as well as which offer to accept in the case of a study. A project manager of the TA-SWISS office then initializes the project and supervises the commissioned institution throughout the whole duration of the project. The final focus of each project always emerges through the cooperative work of and the intensive debate with all participants. Not only the research group entrusted with the project, but also the TA-SWISS office and the monitoring group provide important inputs. The latter, consisting of 10 to 20 persons with appropriate professional competences, is formed specifically for each project. It reviews the concept, the intermediate as well as the final results and thus ensures quality and a well-balanced presentation of the subject.
New topics are initialized by the TA-SWISS office on the base of a constant monitoring of new scientific and technological developments. Suggestions from external experts or from members of the TA-SWISS executive committee are also integrated in this systematic survey. In this way, subject areas are identified and within these the project managers develop concrete proposals for projects. The TA-SWISS executive committee then decides which new studies are taken up.
TA-SWISS deliberately chooses projects that deal with particularly controversial technologies and assesses their benefits and disadvantages comprehensively. The Centre’s independence ensures the credibility necessary for this purpose.
TA-SWISS mainly analyses developments in the fields of biotechnology, medicine, nanotechnology and communication and information technologies. However, the effects of social or cultural complexities are less studied and for this reason they have been identified as a new challenge.
Why technology assessment? This question was discussed even before the establishment of TA-SWISS. An instance that poses questions on new technologies in an impartial way is vital, and the following criteria are still valid today: how do new technologies develop, what has to be taken into account, how do they change everyday life in society and how might future scenarios look like? Additionally, the public debate needs to be encouraged today, too.
Politicians and citizens have to be supported in their decision making process by comprehensible illustrations and documentations of facts and circumstances. The results of TA-SWISS studies provide the required basics, information and recommendations on selected specialist fields. By contrast, the participative proceedings show how citizens rate specific future oriented technologies and topics. It reveals the advantages and disadvantages they ascribe to a certain technological development and it documents the needs of the population, e.g. the need for more transparent information or better protection. The discussions show where citizens see a need for action. In these projects, citizens are the experts representing the population at large. Studies as well as participative methods are employed by TA-SWISS in order to give a comprehensive survey of the chances and risks of new technologies and to favour a knowledge-based technology debate.
As the term »studies« anticipates: Studies are often very extensive and complex. Therefore, TA-SWISS prepares abridged versions of its technology assessment studies. The easily understandable abbreviated versions are essential in communicating the results to politicians and to an interested population. For the participative projects information brochures are first compiled. These brochures brief the citizens involved in a well-balanced way in order to familiarize them with the technological topic that is to be discussed in the citizen debate. A synthesis report will then be issued on the actual discussions. It will not only contain the results, but also the different chains of reasoning showing what was supported and what was criticized by the citizens and why. All these products are important for the realization of the formulated objectives: to support the public debate and to help politicians and citizens in making knowledge-based decisions.
Extensive public relation efforts are vital to reach these target groups. TA-SWISS organises media conferences or publishes articles to draw attention to its projects. Policy makers as well as the interested public receive printed and electronic newsletters and are invited to public presentations, workshops and debates on a regular basis. Politicians are confronted with the projects in personal dialogues and in discussions, and political groups, administrative authorities and expert groups are addressed by presentations and provided with written information material.
In the past few years TA-SWISS has focused on the following subjects:
Biotechnology and medicine:
Mobility, energy, climate:
Social and cultural TA:
Indicators – emergence and use in politics
As of 2017 TA-SWISS is treating or initializing the following topics:
The recommendations resulting from TA projects are intended to be used by parliament and the Federal council as an aid for decision making – especially when controversial technology topics are being discussed. In addition, the project results are communicated to interested politicians, to experts in the fields of science and administration, as well as to the media and interested citizens.
Political decision-makers rely on assessments which show the consequences and social impact of technologies. The work of TA-SWISS is widely recognized for its quality and the impartiality of its assessments. It is vital for TA-SWISS to continually strive for these qualities in order to maintain support from all political parties.
Swiss Foundation for Technology Assessment
Director: Dr. Sergio Bellucci
Fon +41 31 310 99 60
Fax +41 31 310 99 61