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The Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment
I. – THE CREATION OF THE OPECST
At the beginning of the 1980s, at the time of a certain number of debates such as that on the direction of nuclear or space programmes or on the territorial cabling plan, the Parliament realized that it was not in a position to independently judge all Government decisions on the broad orientations of scientific and technological policy.
Therefore, it decided to set up its own expertise and assessment body specialized in issues linked to the development of scientific knowledge and of new technologies: the Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment (OPECST).
Set up by Law n°83-609 of July 8, 1983, with the unanimous agreement of Parliament, this body has, as its mandate, according to the wording of the law, “to inform Parliament of the consequences of the choice of scientific and technological options, in particular, so as to enable it to make enlightened decisions”. To do this it “collects information, sets up study programmes and carries out assessments”.
II. – THE CONSTRUCTION AND OPERATION OF THE OPECST
1.– The structure of the office
The OPECST is an unusual structure within the Parliament: this delegation whose members are appointed in order to ensure the proportional representation of political groups, is run jointly by the National Assembly and the Senate. It is composed of 18 M.P.s and 18 Senators. Its chairmanship is carried out by a member of one of the two assemblies in alternation, for a three-year term. The law stipulates that the first deputy chairman must belong to the other assembly.
The OPECST is an intermediary between the world of politics and the world of research. It is aided by a Scientific Council, the composition of which reflects the wide range of scientific and technological disciplines. This Scientific Council, which is made up of 24 leading figures appointed by the Delegation on account of their expertise, may be convened by the Chairman of the OPECST as often as he feels it necessary.
Matters may be referred to the OPECST either by the Bureau of one or the other of the assemblies (upon its own initiative or upon the request of the chairman of a political group or that of sixty M.P.s or forty Senators) or by an ad-hoc committee or a standing committee.
3.– appointment of the rapporteur
Every referral must lead to the appointment by the OPECST of one or several rapporteurs, selected exclusively within the Office. Several such studies have brought together an M.P. and a Senator or an M.P. from the ruling majority and one from the opposition.
III. – THE WORK
1.– The reports of the opecst: study programmes in several stages
a) Feasibility Studies
Once the rapporteur has been appointed, he first of all carries out a feasibility study. The aim of such a study is to establish the state of knowledge on the subject, to decide on possible fields of research, to judge the possibility of obtaining useful results in the required time limit and also to determine the means necessary for the carrying out of a study programme.
The rapporteur then puts the conclusions of his feasibility study to the members of the OPESCT. This must be accompanied by a methodological reflection. He then suggests either the opening-up of a study programme leading to the drawing-up of a report, which is far from being the most frequent case, or the reformulation of the referral (for instance, a referral which originally dealt with bio-fuels was broadened to include the perspectives for the development of agricultural production for non-food uses), or even, in exceptional circumstances, dropping the work entirely.
b) Drafting the Report
When the decision to open up the study is taken, the rapporteur holds private hearings which enable him to gather the opinions of leading scientists or representatives of industry, associations, administration or agencies. He may also hold public hearings open to the press and carry out missions in France or abroad.
To help him in his work, the rapporteur may set up a working group or a “steering committee” made up of leading experts from outside Parliament.
c) The Powers of the rapporteurs
The law provides OPECST rapporteurs with the same powers as special rapporteurs: they may thus have free access to all evidence in state bodies and can examine all administrative documents with the exception of those concerning national defence or state security. In addition, in case it encounters obstructions in carrying out its tasks, the OPECST may ask, for a period not exceeding six months, to obtain the powers attributed to parliamentary commissions of inquiry.
d) The Publication of the Report
The reports of the OPECST are not limited to gathering the various opinions of experts. The collected information is analysed by the rapporteurs. At the end of their study, they put their conclusions and recommendations to the members of the OPESCT. The latter decide on the publication of this work or not. It should be noted that the decisions of the OPESCT are taken, in these cases, more often than not, unanimously and that the Office is characterized by the consensual nature of its positions.
The reports whose publication is approved by the OPECST are submitted to each assembly.
They can be of several categories:
- Reports on topical subjects;
- Since the setting-up of the OPECST, nearly 120 reports have been published dealing with a broad range of subjects. This can be observed by examining the most recent reports on developments in the micro/nanoelectric field, on the risks and dangers for human health of everyday chemical substances, on the light shed by science and technology on the compensation of handicaps, on the improvement of the security of dams and hydraulic constructions, on the impact of research on the assessment of halieutical stocks and fishing management or on the national energy strategy;
- There are as many referrals today issuing from the Bureaux of the Assembly as studies requested by the standing committees. The practice of appointing co-rapporteurs has become quite usual. Around forty reports have been entrusted to two rapporteurs, of which nearly half to an M.P. and a Senator;
- Follow-up reports;
- The OPESCT also ensures the carrying out of follow-ups on issues which have been previously studied and the implementation of its recommendations;
- Certain referrals are regularly renewed as in the case of the monitoring of the safety and security of nuclear installations;
- Other referrals require the updating of previous report of the OPESCT (developments in the semi-conductor sector, digital high-definition television, high activity nuclear waste, biotechnologies etc.);
- Assessment reports of the implementation of laws;
- Several laws provide, in addition, for an assessment by the OPESCT of the implementation of some or all of their provisions. This type of referral was added to that laid down by the law of 1983. The following laws are examples of this practice: those of 1994 and 2004 concerning “bioethics”, that of 1998 concerning the strengthening of health controls and the monitoring of health security of products for human use, the 2005 programming law setting the guidelines for energy policy, the 2006 programming law concerning the sustainable management of radio-active waste and matter or that of 2006 on research.
2.– Public hearings
If the rapporteur considers it necessary, public auditions, open to the press, may be held so as to gather, or to oppose, the opinions of experts and organizations wishing to express an opinion on a specific subject. The minutes of these public hearings may then be annexed to the report.
In addition, the OPESCT more and more frequently holds public hearings, open to the press, where opposing opinions may be expressed so all points of view on these subjects for topical debate may be heard. This procedure, which was introduced in 1997 with the holding of a “day of study” on the information society, has led to debates on such widely different subjects as the crisis linked to the légionnaire’s disease epidemic of 2003, the international governance of the internet, scientific expertise, the London Protocol on European patents, the effects of electro-magnetic pollution on the operation of medical apparatus, radiotherapy, the exploration of the brain, bio-fuels, the recognition of research, the health impact of high tension lines, relay masts, scientific data and public disquiet or personal medical files.
Public hearings also enable the OPESCT to realize the changes which have taken place since the publication of a previous report. Those held in 2006 and 2007 on biometrics, nanotechnologies and tuberculosis perfectly fitted in with this desire.
3.– OPECST bulletins
These are short notes of four pages on topical subjects such as nuclear medicine, bio-fuels, electromagnetic fields and health.
They are drawn up upon the initiative of members of the OPECST based on the model of the “PostNotes” of the British Parliament. They are approved by the Chairman and First Deputy Chairman and then transmitted to all MP.s and to all correspondents of the OPECST. They may also be consulted on the internet.
IV. – OPENING UP TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD
1.– Relations with the scientific world
The OPECST has opened up to the outside. It has been able to build up special relations with the scientific world by holding “field trips” to laboratories and to research establishments and by setting up, since 2005, a partnership with the Academy of Sciences.
It has become a serious player recognized by the whole scientific community and maintains on-going links with it. Events which bring together the OPECST and high level bodies are the perfect illustration of this.
Every year, the OPECST holds several colloquia or study days either in connection with one of its reports or on a specific scientific or technological topic.
2.– General international activities
The OPECST has gradually become an efficient tool of parliamentary action. Several laws have provided for it being informed of, or participating in, the appointment of parliamentary representatives within various bodies, or being represented itself either by its Chairman or by one of its members on different organizations.
Furthermore, the OPECST also contributes to the development of international parliamentary relations and takes part, particularly at a European level, in various symposiums and events. In this context, a network for dialogue and information exchange called the European Parliamentary Technology Association (EPTA) was set up. It brings together the European bodies tasked with dealing with scientific and technological assessment for national Parliaments and for the European Parliament.