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An informed democracy requires informed decision-makers. Parliamentarians need information about science and technology tailored to their needs.

A major challenge to any democracy is ensuring that its leaders are accountable for their decisions through the support of a political system with adequate skills and resources. This requirement runs across the spectrum of political responsibilities. But it is particularly acute in the area of science and technology. Here decisions can have as much impact on the future of a country as those taken in the fields of economic policy or foreign affairs. But parliamentarians and other elected officials involved in science and technology seldom possess either the relevant professional background or the detailed personal knowledge of colleagues responsible for other areas.

Over the years, the parliaments of industrialised nations have devised a series of devices to overcome this handicap. Most, for example, now have their own science and technology committees, responsible for maintaining a watching brief on all government policies that impact on, or are impacted by, these activities. A few have created offices of technology assessment, cross-party groups allocated the task of carrying out more in-depth studies of particular scientific and technical issues than the research staff of a parliamentary committee would have the time or resources to pursue.

Mixed experiences

Experience with such committees has been mixed. There is always a danger that a science and technology committee can become a political lobby for a major technological sector, such as the aerospace industry. Such an industry may offer the free support of its specialists, or provide detailed technical or economic justifications for a line of investment (which may include state funding) in which non-specialist members of a committee can find it hard to pick holes.

In other cases, such committees risk exceeding, or being perceived to exceed, their political brief. Such was the case, for example, of the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). This was set up in the early 1970s as an advisory body to the Democrat-controlled Congress, and a counterweight to the then Republican administration. The OTA was killed off by the Republicans in Congress in the early 1990s in an ostensibly budget-cutting move. But many felt that its termination reflected resentment of the critical stand that OTA reports had taken on various government projects and proposals, including the anti-ballistic missile defence system — the so-called Star Wars Programme.

In general, however, it is accepted that it is essential for a modern, well-functioning democracy to have a range of mechanisms to ensure that both government decision-makers and those in parliament responsible for monitoring and approving their actions can operate effectively on science-related issues. This message was underlined at a meeting held in Helsinki, Finland, in mid-January, organised jointly by the Finnish Parliament, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), and the latter's equivalent in the Islamic States (ISESCO).

The case for science and technology committees

It is already a message being taken on board by an increasing number of developing countries. A leading Ugandan Parliamentarian, Amuriat Oboi Patrick — chair of the newly created Ugandan Science and Technology Commission — argued at the Helsinki meeting that every country in Africa should set up a similar body to increase the effectiveness with which science and technology are integrated into economic and social development (see African parliaments 'need science committees').

Oboi went on to suggest that such bodies had much to gain by collaborating at both a regional and an international level. Such collaboration, he added, might take the form of sharing information about the key issues that they face as well as efforts already being made by other parliaments to address such issues. Sharing experience and good practice would provide a mechanism for parliaments in developing countries to learn from both the successes and failures of their counterparts in the developed world.

As various other speakers at the Helsinki meeting made clear, such committees have a range of functions in ensuring that science and technology are given appropriate priority in the political arena. Too often, these topics get pushed to the bottom of the agenda by short-terms concern, particularly regarding economic and foreign policy. A well-functioning science and technology committee can bring a longer-term perspective to these debates, underlining the need, for example, to invest in educational infrastructure if a country is to participate effectively in a global knowledge-based economy.

In some countries, this forward-looking role is explicitly acknowledged. One of the main organisers of the Helsinki meeting, for example, was Finland's Committee for the Future, a body explicitly set up to bring together scientists and politicians. There was much talk about the value of such organisations in creating a meeting point between two cultures that often find it difficult — partly because of the very different timescales within which they operate — to find a common language with which to share their insights.

Need for a broad perspective

There is certainly much to be gained from similar initiatives aimed at bringing together scientists and politicians in developing countries. At the end of the Helsinki meeting, the participants called for the creation of an international forum, to be set up in consultation with national, regional and international parliamentary actors, and with the support of the Finnish Parliament and UNESCO, to act as a focal point for such developments. And there was general agreement on the needs of parliamentarians to gain better access to information — perhaps through the Internet — about the complex topics that they frequently find themselves facing.

At the same time, however, as some speakers at the meeting pointed out, it is important for members of science and technology committees to remember that they have a broader brief than merely defending or promoting the interests of the scientific or technological community in their countries. It is equally important for them to listen to public concerns about science, and to ensure that such concerns are reflected responsibly in the decisions taken by policy-makers.

In practice, this means providing a space in which such concerns can be examined and discussed away from the heat of the conventional public platform, but with the same level of openness and transparency. It is clearly the responsibility of a science and technology committee to provide a forum where the views of the top scientific experts in a particularly field can be heard. Equally important, however, is to hear the considered arguments of those who are not part of the scientific establishment, but may have equally valid social, moral or ethical points of view to present on the topic being discussed.

Establishing a balance between acting as a promoter of science, and as an honest broker for discussions about science, is not easy. But it is essential if science and technology committees — or for that matter offices of technology assessment, or 'committees for the future' — are to maintain their political legitimacy. A failure to recognise the need for this balance can result in such organisations acting, and being seen to act, as little more than single-interest lobby groups. These have a role in the political system. But science and technology are too important to be left to such a narrow approach.

© SciDev.Net 2003