In 1978, the Dutch government wished to identify the likely societal effects of computer automation, then a rapidly emerging technology. Would the introduction of the micro-chip lead to mass unemployment, or would it bring new (economic) opportunities? The commission charged with answering this question was led by Prof. G.W. Rathenau (1911-1989), who was successively Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Amsterdam, director of the Philips Physics Laboratory in Eindhoven, and a member of the Scientific Advisory Council on Government Policy.

Gerhart Rathenau

One of the commission's recommendations was that there should be ongoing and systematic monitoring of the societal significance of all technological advances. Rathenau's activities led to the foundation of the Netherlands Organization for Technology Assessment (NOTA) in 1986. On 2 June 1994, this organization was renamed the 'Rathenau Instituut'. While it remains an independent and autonomous organization, the institute now falls under the administrative responsibility of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

In 2004, at the request of the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, a new task was added to the Rathenau Instituut's remit: Science System Assessment (SciSA).