Editorial | Published:

False economy

Nature volume 480, pages 56 (01 December 2011) | Download Citation

The Danish government's plan to axe technology assessment is ill-conceived.

Liberal democracy and science combined so successfully in the twentieth century that the nations and societies in which they were strongest rose to economic and cultural dominance. Nothing suggests that the recipe might lose its appeal as the twenty-first century proceeds, with democracy and science gaining ground in parts of the Arab world and some developing countries. But advances in science also raise ethical and environmental concerns that need to be taken seriously.

Denmark, a small but technologically advanced country that in January will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union, has pioneered the use of participatory methods to assess the risks and societal impact of new technologies. But plans to disband the Danish Board of Technology (DBT), which has been a leader in studying public views and expectations of science and technology, suggest that Denmark's new government is not quite aware of the country's formidable tradition in democratizing science. If it proceeds with the plan — which, ironically, is intended to preserve funds for research — it risks destroying a critical piece of Europe's science-policy system.

The DBT was set up in 1986 to advise the Folketinget, the Danish parliament, but its work is not confined to Denmark. In 2009, for example, it carried out the most extensive study to date of how communication affects global public attitudes towards climate change, covering 4,000 citizens in 38 countries. Unlike simple opinion polls, the World Wide Views on Global Warming project gave participants extensive information on the science and economics of climate change (see www.wwviews.org). As the meetings progressed, widespread scepticism and doubt gave way to a high degree of consensus that climate change is real and should be dealt with promptly.

“The Danish government risks destroying a critical piece of the science- policy system.”

The DBT is currently assessing a range of other topics, including the sustainability of the Danish transport system, the risks related to synthetic biology, and the security of delivering government services using new information and communication technologies. On the international level, it is set to produce a policy report, World Wide Views on Biodiversity, for next year's Rio+20 summit on biodiversity in India.

That project and most ongoing assessments will perish if the board is dismantled. The governing coalition of three centre-leftparties formed after the parliamentary elections in September intends to redirect the board's annual funding of about 10 million kroner (US$1.8 million) to the 2012 research and education budget, which it is determined to spare from savage cuts. In times of financial crisis, such a stance deserves applause — but the impact on Danish society and government of the loss of competence in technology assessment and public engagement in science would far outweigh the benefits to students and researchers of the modest sum gleaned from closing the DBT.

Many other countries take inspiration from Denmark on how to study and shape public attitudes towards the science that could help society address issues such as ageing, climate, energy and biodiversity. The DBT is leading a €5.4-million (US$7.2-million) European Union-funded project, called PACITA, to expand technology assessment based on public engagement (see www.pacitaproject.eu). Denmark's approach is also gaining a following in Asia, where demand for sustainable energy technology is growing rapidly. Policy-makers in China and South Korea, for example, are increasingly open to the participatory methods for technology assessment pioneered by Denmark.

Clearly, then, the DBT should be saved. A way forward might be for it to apply its analytical services more widely to international assessments, such as the biodiversity exercise it is currently engaged in. Domestically, it should serve all decision-makers, from municipal to national levels, rather than just parliament. Taking on more externally funded projects could help to compensate for unavoidable budget cuts.

Meanwhile, scientists and science academies in Denmark and abroad should voice their support for a democratic institution that has served science better than its small size and modest title might lead one to believe. Danish MPs and the government's young science minister, Morten Østergaard, should take note.

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