Technology Controversies

Technology controversies are an important feature in society today. The disputes are not only about specific applications but also about what research and development should be working on, and how this should be done.

For a long time, it was assumed that progress in science and technology automatically went hand in hand with growth and prosperity for all. The introduction of new technologies was never a problem. Since the 1970s, however, there has been more and more talk about the risks and undesirable side-effects of the increased use of technology. There were huge controversies for instance on the use of nuclear energy, hydroelectric power and large-scale chemical plants, and later there were long discussions about the use of agricultural biotechnology or stem cell research. Sometimes, there is even a fear of controversies before any public discussion begins, before there are any specific applications or marketable products. This was to be seen in the case of nanotechnology and is today the case with synthetic biology.

Public opinion counts


Today, the way the public sees and thinks about new technologies has changed. The 1970s and 1980s were dominated by protests, mass mobilisation and consumer boycotts, but today the potential for protest remains largely silent. Guided dialogues involving an encounter between experts and representatives of the groups affected are much more popular than activism. In addition, participatory methods are being used more frequently to involve the public in possibly disputed technology issues from the very start. These methods are intended to bring in people who are usually not involved in discussing technology questions, or have no interest in doing so. The aim is to encourage them to participate actively in the development process.

Risks vs. ethical aspects

The basis for the objections is always different. In the discussions concerning nuclear energy or agricultural biotechnology as well as nanotechnology, the main question was that of the risk. With questions related to biomedicine ethical aspects have been in the foreground. Subject to the core problem, different people are entitled to participate in the debate, different arguments are considered significant and political decisions have to be be justified in different ways. Simply regulating the risks on the basis of scientific knowledge is no longer enough. What matters instead is determining the relevant topics and negotiating them within different networks. This is currently being discussed as a change in the way we are governed, and goes under the name "governance".

The ITA examines how technology controversies are important for the way policymakers approach controversial technologies:

We focus on the question of how these controversies arise, how they proceed and how they are dealt with. How the public perceives scientific content, and the way it is communicated, have a major influence on how these controversies come about and the course they take – and the ITA looks at both these aspects.

We also examine the forms and functions of scientific expertise in these conflicts:

After all, this expertise is essential for justifying the different points of view on topics that are becoming more and more abstract. The selection of the expertise is an important indication of what core problem is at issue in the controversy. With topics related to risk, scientific expertise is essential for justifying the different points of view; for topics related to ethics, other forms of knowledge are also relevant. Our findings help to identify the type of technology controversy at issue and the course it will probably take.

Genetic modification in agriculture remains highly controversial