The Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment - Presentation
Whereas science was long considered as a vehicle of knowledge, and not as the principle of an action, modern times have witnessed the development of sciences and technologies enabling mankind to act upon nature. In other words, science has passed from speculation to action. However, in doing so, it has brought up fresh problems and new concerns. If, only yesterday, we allowed it free development in the context of everyone's well-being it was supposed to guarantee, we now ask it to show previous proof of its innocence.
From this observation was born the idea of technology assessment which appeared essential to scientific and political bodies. Mechanisms had to be put in place in order to control technical progress while, at the same time, anticipating its consequences.
In the early 80's, on the occasion of a number of debates such as the orientations concerning nuclear, spatial or "cable" programmes, Parliament came to the conclusion that it was unable to evaluate Government's decisions on the major directions of scientific and technological policy.
It therefore decided to endow itself with its own structure of assessment: the Parliamentary Office Scientific and Technological Assessment (OPECST).
OPECST, which was set up by Act n° 83-609 of July 8, 1983, following a unanimous vote of Parliament, aims, within the terms of the act, "to inform Parliament of scientific and technological options in order, specifically, to make its decisions clear." Regarding this, OPECST "collects information, launches study programmes and carries out assessments."
WHAT IS THE STRUCTURE OF OPECST ?
An independent structure
OPECST is a particular structure within Parliament: its members, who are nominated in order to guarantee a proportional representation of political groups, belong both to the National Assembly and to the Senate. It is composed of eighteen Members of the National Assembly and eighteen Senators.
As regards the chairmanship of OPECST, it is customary for the chairman to be a member of either assembly, alternately, for a period of three years. Internal rules stipulate that the vice-chairman shall belong to the other assembly.
Only Members of Parliament may refer matters to OPECST
Matters can be referred to OPECST by the board of either assembly (at the request of the chairman of a political group, or on the initiative of sixty Members of the National Assembly or forty Senators), or by a special or permanent committee.
Until now, the topics dealt with have belonged to four main subjects: energy, environment, new technologies and sciences of life.
Some matters referred to OPECST have been reexamined several years on end, such as problems connected with the safety and security of nuclear installations. Others have requested the updating of one of OPECST's previous reports (development of the semiconductor sector, television with digital high-definition, high-activity nuclear waste, etc.). The renewal of these matters has enabled OPECST to ensure the follow-up of certain files.
The Scientific Committee
OPECST acts as an intermediary between the political world and the world of research. It must be listening to researchers and request authorized opinions. In order to carry out its task, OPECST is assisted by a Scientific Committee reflecting the diversity of scientific and technological disciplines in its very composition, as it is made up of fifteen leading figures selected for their competence.
WHAT ARE THE STUDY PROGRAMMES ?
The " rapporteurs" nomination
Any matter referred to OPECST leads to the nomination of one or more " rapporteurs ", exclusively selected from the members of OPECST. Many different study programmes have brought together a Member of the National Assembly and a Senator.
The feasibility study
When a " rapporteur " has been designated, he first draws up a feasibility study, whose aim is to establish the state of our knowledge on the subject, to determine possible trends of research, to assess the possibilities of obtaining relevant results within the deadline, and finally to evaluate the necessary means for starting a study programme.
The " rapporteur " then submits the conclusions of his feasibility study together with methodological remarks to the members of OPECST. At that stage, he suggests either that an end should be put to his work, (it happens very rarely), or he proposes to modify the extent of the study (a study first dealing with biocarburants was thus extended to prospects for development of non food agricultural products), or, much more frequently, he starts a study programme that leads to the drawing-up of a report.
The drafting of a report
The " rapporteur " then goes ahead with hearings enabling him to gather, without exclusion, all opinions from concerned persons and organisations. He may also travel in France or abroad in order to inspect installations and firms connected with his work.
Throughout his study, the " rapporteur " is assisted by a parliamentary civil servant and, if need be, by a work-group made up of competent people not belonging to Parliament. He may also hire French or foreign free-lance experts and consultants for further investigation into specific items. He may likewise gather the opinions of trades unions, professional organisations, and charities for the protection of the environment or consumer-defence.
However, OPECST's reports are not restricted to putting side by side the experts' points of view. Their conclusions are the work of Members of Parliament and may go beyond mere information by including suggestions and recommendations.
If the " rapporteur " deems it necessary, press-hearings are organised to gather and confront the opinions of leading figures and organisations wishing to express themselves on the subject in discussion. The minutes of these hearings may then be annexed to the report.
The " rapporteurs " powers
OPECST " rapporteurs " have identical powers as budgetary " rapporteurs ": they may therefore carry out direct investigations on any organisation dependent of the State and have access to any available document, with the exception of those dealing with military matters or State security. In addition, in the event of difficulties encountered in exercising their mission, OPECST "rapporteurs" may request to be given the prerogatives granted to parliamentary committees of inquiry.
How are their reports published ?
At the end of their work, the " rapporteurs " submit their draft report and conclusions to the members of OPECST. They are presented in such a way that they may be used directly for legislative work or budgetary discussion. Members of OPECST must decide whether they publish these works and all or part of the minutes of the hearings and the contributions by the experts. In this respect, OPECST's decisions are mostly unanimous and the consensus of its decisions is one of OPECST's main features.
The documents from OPECST are available on the website of the Senate as well of the website of Nationaly Assembly.
Since 1983, OPECST has published 185 reports.
WHAT ARE ITS GENERAL AND INTERNATIONAL CONCERNS ?
OPECST has gradually become an efficient instrument in parliamentary affairs. Several acts make provision either for its information or its participation in the nomination of representatives of Parliament within various bodies, or for its representation, by its President or one of its members, within the board of directors of various organisations.
It has also become an acknowledged spokesman for the whole scientific community and pursues connections with this community. The events bringing together OPECST and high-level organisations -the Académie des Sciences, CEA, Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie, CNRS, etc.- are the true illustration of this.
Every year, several conferences and seminars are organised by OPECST, either in relation to one of its concerns or about a scientific or technological subject.
Finally, OPECST also contributes to the development of international parliamentary relations and takes part in various congresses and events, in particular on the European level. Thus, over the last few years, we have seen the setting-up of an information and exchange network, the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment (EPTA), bringing together the European organisations responsible for conducting scientific and technological assessments for national Parliaments and the European Parliament.
In the near future, OPECST would like to continue and strengthen its various missions and, in particular, play a role in furthering the exchange between the political and scientific worlds.
(1) A " rapporteur " is a Member of Parliament in charge of writing a report on a given subject.