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Technology assessment and decision-making under uncertainty: lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic

09 November 2021
corona EPTA
Het pondje over het IJ in Amsterdam vol met mensen met mondkapjes op
During the past 1,5 years in which we dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians had to make decisions under enormous pressure. They had to decide, for example, whether to deploy apps and how to involve people in the vaccination strategy in the best possible way. During all this, they were faced with scientific uncertainty and all kinds of dependencies. They took measures that have had far-reaching consequences for citizens. Science, technology and innovation (STI) have played a crucial in this crisis. How did governments in different countries respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how did they use STI to combat the crisis? What are the urgent issues that need to be dealt with in a post-COVID world?

Organisations connected to the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment network (EPTA) have addressed these questions. The network is a partnership of technology assessment organisations located in 21, mostly European, countries, and the EU. In this report, they describe and analyse past developments related to the COVID-19 crisis. Moreover, they look ahead and point to the topics that societies worldwide need to discuss in order to be well-prepared for future pandemics and crises.


Due to the COVID-19 crisis, societies have slowed down their pace, and many personal, social, political, and cultural developments were put on the back burner. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has acted like a pressure cooker for other kinds of developments in society, such as the acceleration of digitalisation of education, work, and our social lives. Moreover, it has underscored the importance and challenge of democratic and evidence-based political decision-making. Politicians have had to deal with scientific uncertainty and have had to weigh different interests. The measures that were taken, have had big consequences for the lives of citizens. Science, technology and innovation (STI) have played a crucial role in this crisis. How did governments in different countries respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how did they use STI to combat the crisis? Has the existing way of informed decision-making by politicians been adequate in this kind of crisis? What are the emerging issues that need to be dealt with in a post-COVID-19 world? In this report, we address these questions.

Purpose and target audience report
This report describes strengths and weaknesses in the governance of the corona pandemic related to the use of STI in countries that are part of the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment network (EPTA). Eighteen members of the EPTA network have contributed to this report, sixteen of which belong to a country, and two represent a wider European perspective. Next to European countries, Japan, the United States of America, South Korea and Chile belong to the EPTA network. How have the EPTA institutes supported parliament and policy-makers in their decision-making process? TA institutes can play a vital role in providing balanced, comprehensive and independent information that is needed for decision-making on the deployment of science and technology. Lastly, the EPTA network observes six urgent challenges that Technology Assessment (TA) institutes need to scrutinise and advise policy-makers on in a post-COVID-19 world.

The report is written for various types of audiences, including TA institutes as well as members of parliament, policy-makers, and institutions interested in TA. In meeting future crises, the outcomes of this report are a starting point to improve interactions between STI, governments, politicians and society, including the role of TA therein. This can contribute to more resilience of societies in the face of future crises, such as the climate crisis or pandemics that may lie ahead.

This joint report is part of the EPTA network’s ongoing effort to strengthen the role of Technology Assessment in parliamentary decision-making across Europe. Furthermore, it is meant  to establish links between different TA activities worldwide.

Challenges, and opportunities for parliamentary TA
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit countries across the board, with severe consequences for health, the economy and society. Most countries were underprepared for this relatively novel threat, and virtually all governments turned to experts for advice. In this initial phase, in which countries were in a crisis mode, there was a firm reliance on scientific experts, mainly from the (bio)medical sciences, to guide policy-makers to find a way out of the pandemic. However, after the direct threat of the first wave of infections had been lifted, the debate within parliament and society broadened in most countries. More things than health were at stake. This fact led to controversy in the debate on measures based on uncertain or incomplete scientific evidence. Advising the government on COVID-19 quickly became highly organised within most EPTA member countries. While some EPTA institutes were included in this institutionalised system responsible for providing scientific advice, others were not. Consequently, it was up to their own initiative to contribute their expertise to inform policies and political decision-making.

The fast spread of the virus required quick decision-making. Sometimes, political decisions were based on minimal scientific information, and decisions sometimes played out differently than expected. It was challenging for politicians and policy-makers to balance between taking action and reflecting on the available evidence and the possible consequences for society. EPTA members responded to this challenge by developing different formats (faster, shorter) to provide advice to their parliaments. The Rathenau Instituut, for instance, sent a message to parliament in which it swiftly responded to the plans of the Dutch government for a COVID-19 app. Whereas in the report Valued at work it gave an analysis of digital monitoring in the workplace. This phenomenon already existed before the corona pandemic. However, the crisis made it more topical. Some EPTA institutes advised on citizen participation and democratisation in the relationship between STI, politics and society. The Rathenau Instituut applied its knowledge of digitalisation and involving citizens in a couple of accessible messages to parliament in which it responded to topical events.

Furthermore, politicians and policy-makers did not base their decisions on scientific evidence alone; other political, social, economic, legal, and moral considerations also played a role. Policy-makers often referred to scientific evidence or experts to substantiate their decisions without explaining the role of other considerations in their choices. This lack of transparency can be damaging to trust in the measures and the democratic process. EPTA institutes helped clarify the interactions between science, technology, society, and politics.

Finally, many governments seemed underprepared for the current crises and relied on ad hoc crisis management with uncertainty about the consequences of the policies. Governance structures should be more adaptable and dynamic. At the same time, it is crucial that such governance and legislation do not infringe on citizens' rights and privacy. Several EPTA members have given suggestions for more anticipatory governance using methods from the field of foresight, like Horizon Scan or Crisis Radar.

Societal Challenges

In this report, the EPTA-network has formulated six societal challenges that need to be addressed in the post-COVID-19 world. These challenges include: 

  1. Inclusive, fair, and sustainable digitalisation in the future. Due to the urgency of the crisis during the pandemic, discussions about socially responsible digitalisation have moved to the background. The challenge is to put responsible digitisation back on the political agenda and fuel the development and use of those types of digitalisation that contribute to more resilient, inclusive, fair, and sustainable societies.
  2. The telework revolution. The pandemic has created room to discuss which combinations of physical and virtual arrangements in digitalisation of work are optimal. A major challenge our societies face is to integrate telework as a key feature of contemporary life in a way that is inclusive, responsible, and holistic.
  3. Building more resilient supply chains. The pandemic disclosed deficits and vulnerabilities in systems of European states that lacked access to necessary medical equipment. Transnational discussions about how to bolster and ensure resilience of global (medical) supply chains in times of crisis are needed. Parliaments of EPTA member countries can take the lead to initiate these discussions, supported by the existing international EPTA network. 
  4. Assessing the vulnerability of complex societies. The pandemic society has foregrounded the interconnection between technology, medicine, economics, digitalisation, and society. Technology assessment experts can contribute to explicating dependencies and vulnerabilities of complex sociotechnical infrastructures. As policy-makers took far-reaching measures to tackle the coronavirus, the perceptions of scientists, politicians and the public of what is politically feasible have changed. TA can help to reflect on this, to aid the consideration of what is (and what is not) politically feasible to achieve by the use of STI for crises and societal challenges, and how.
  5. Health data sharing. The pandemic has caused digitalisation to be used on a larger scale in health care. This included teleconsultations. Moreover, there was a need for an overview of medical data. The EPTA network can play a role in advising on the development of a (governance) system that allows for a more efficient transnational analysis of health data for public health purposes, while safeguarding EU citizens’ rights, such as privacy and decision power on who use their data and for which goals.
  6. Politics and COVID-19 in the long term. The corona pandemic is not yet over. Governments will continue to make an effort to combat the current pandemic and they will strive to prevent new one. EPTA institutes play a role in this process by continuing to inform or advise governments about knowledge, technological developments and the debate about this.