A pioneer in trouble: Danish Board of Technology are facing problems

Incredible, but true!

In October 2011 the new Danish centre-left government proposed to cut the whole public funding of one of the important Danish democratic public institutions, the Danish Board of Technology, and use the annual public funding (1.5 million Euros) for other research activities. The proposal came from a unanimous research policy committee in the Danish parliament as part of the proposal for financing an increase in the national research budget with around 40 million Euros within the Danish national budget for 2012.

Many persons within the Danish community of technology assessment and technology and democracy practitioners were shocked. How could this happen? Also many politicians were astonished and criticized the decision.

We had just one month earlier got a new government after 10 years of right wing government. Who would have expected that a centre-left government as part of its first annual budget would accept a proposal from civil servants in the Ministry of Finance to reduce the public funding of Board of Technology to zero?! The explanation seems to be lack of knowledge about the Board of Technology among the several new parliamentary research spokespersons in the research policy committee. The Ministry of Science, Innovation and Higher Education who is the supervising authority of the Board of Technology tried afterwards to get support for the controversial proposal by playing down the role of the Board of Technology in Danish discussions about technology and the impacts on people, on society and on the environment. The Ministry proposed to close down the Board arguing that the Danish society ‘is facing new challenges’.

The Board is supposed to organise ‘discussions about technology, to evaluate technology and to advise the Danish Parliament (the Folketing) and other governmental bodies in matters pertaining to technology’. The Board is an independent body established by the Danish Parliament in 1995 and is the successor to the Technology Board, which was set up as a statutory body in 1986. The Parliament’s Research Committee is the Board’s liaison to the Parliament.

The work of the Board has also been important outside Denmark where it is seen as one of the pioneers within participatory methods to assess societal impacts of new technologies and develop visions for a more sustainable and democratic future. The Board has, for example, inspired the development of the scenario workshop method.

What now?

The Ministry sent the bill on the abolition of The Danish Board of Technology out for public consultation and got around 111 responses back, both from Danish and international stakeholders. Almost all responses argued against the proposal to abolish the Board and described the importance of the Board both nationally and internationally. This included Fred Steward’s response on behalf of EASST which said, like other international stakeholders, that Denmark loses a lot of international credibility if the Board is closed down.

At the first discussions in the Parliament of the bill on the abolition of The Danish Board of Technology on 9th February 2012 the responsible Minister Morten Østergaard and almost all the political parties’ research spokespersons expressed the wish to continue The Danish Board of Technology’s work and expertise.

The spokespersons focused on the Board’s efforts to date as an international role model for democratic dialogue. The Minister, as well as the spokespersons, referred to the positive impression the many national and international responses had made on them. The spokespersons also mentioned the Board’s skills in methodology, foresight and facilitation.

This debate in the Parliament and the recent discussions between the Ministry and the Board seem to imply that the Board of Technology will survive, but in a modified structure, maybe as a foundation.

The political parties’ spokespersons expressed the need for the Board to continue to ‘serve the democracy’. However, besides developing the modified structure of the Board a very crucial aspect of the future of the Board is whether all the nice words about the need for the activities of the Board from the Minister and the political parties’ spokespersons will materialise into funding from the Parliament. This is needed for the Board to actually carry out, for example, foresight activities and democratic processes for the Parliament and the different political committees in the Parliament. An important indication will be the negotiations about the national budget for 2013, which will start in a few months. Will funds be set aside in that budget for the then fund-based Board of Technology to organise democratic dialogues etc. or will the Board have to organise themselves like any other consultancy company who has to find customers with own funding for every activity?

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EASST made the following submission to the consultation on the proposed closure of the Danish Board of Technology:

The European Association for the Study of Science and Technology represents more than 1000 professors and researchers in Europe specializing in the social, political and economic aspects of science and technology. Founded in 1981 we are holding our 15th international conference at Copenhagen Business School in October 2012.

Europe increasingly recognizes that science, technology and innovation policy needs to engage more effectively with the grand societal challenges of our time such as climate change. We are therefore astonished and dismayed that the future of the Danish Board of Technology, an international pioneer in public engagement in the social assessment of technological innovation, is under threat.

Our members in several European countries have worked very productively with the Danish Board of Technology in recent years, in particular with the project on World Wide Views on Global Warming.

The Danish Board of Technology has played, for over 20 years, an inspiring innovative role in designing forms of pluralist and participative expertise, both in Denmark and in Europe overall. Because of its experience and legitimacy, its abolition would mean a real loss for society at large and for Denmark’s pioneering achievements in particular. The reasons that it was set up remain the same today –the need to link the world of scientific and technical research with the general public. The knowledge produced by DBT has a large and increasing community of users, in research policy, industry, academics, NGOs, etc., and the demand for this kind of knowledge and assessment is higher than ever.

Our research community has been encouraged by the stance of the current Danish government on climate change.  It is seen as a renewal of Denmark’s role as a global leader on environment, innovation and the linking of scientific knowledge with societal challenges.  The termination of the Danish Board of Technology would send an entirely different message to the wider world.

It is difficult to believe that this is the intention.  If there is an argument that it is a small sacrifice that must be made to maintain expenditure on scientific research then this is deeply mistaken.  The reality is quite the opposite.  The future of science and technology depends on building a deeper relationship of trust between academics and the public.  To abandon an institution that has made a unique contribution to this goal would actually be a disservice to the research community itself as well as the wider society.

We sincerely hope that further consideration by all of the interests concerned will agree that the proposal to end the Danish Board of Technology should be rejected.