I. – Establishing of the OPECST
Science has been spurred on by humankind's basic desire to always better understand the mechanisms governing nature and the universe. Over the centuries, it has also become a lever for transforming living conditions, helping to control the scourges of famines and epidemics better, ensuring ever greater daily comfort for the burgeoning middle class, and helping realize eternal dreams such as that of travelling in the air, sailing under the sea or transmuting matter.
The ever-growing presence of science in daily life could not fail to make it a subject of political interest. The idea gradually arose that we need to assess technology so as to better master its progression by anticipating the consequences.
In the early 1980s, during a number of debates, such as those concerning nuclear, space or cable programmes, the French Parliament came to the conclusion that it was unable to assess government decisions on the major directions of scientific and technological policy. It therefore decided to establish its own structure for assessment: the Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment (OPECST).
II. – The structure of the OPECST
The OPECST is an independent body made up of parliamentarians. With the assistance of a scientific council, it investigates matters referred to it by parliamentary bodies.
1. – An independent body
The OPECST is an unusual structure within parliament: its members, who are appointed so as to ensure the proportional representation of political groups, belong both to the National Assembly and to the Senate. It is composed of eighteen MPs and eighteen senators; each member may be appointed as a rapporteur. A rapporteur is an MP or a senator in charge of writing a report on a given subject.
The OPECST is chaired alternately for periods of three years by a member of the National Assembly or the Senate. Internal rules stipulate that the First Vice-President shall belong to the other house of the parliament.
2. – Only M. P.s or senators may refer matters to the OPECST
A matter can be brought before the OPECST in the first instance by an internal parliamentary body; in other words, either by the bureau of either chamber (on its initiative, on request by the chairman of a political group, or else on request by 60 deputies or 40 senators), or by a special or standing committee. Since 1991, some Acts have also directly entrusted a study or assessment mission to the office. Until now, the topics dealt with have been in four main areas: energy, environment, new technologies and life sciences.
Some matters referred to the OPECST have been re-examined several times, such as problems connected with the safety and security of nuclear installations. Others have required the updating of one of the OPECST’s previous reports (such as the development of the semiconductor sector, high-definition digital television, high-activity nuclear waste, biotechnology and bioethics). The renewal of such referrals allows the office to follow up the topics concerned very closely.
3. – The Scientific Council
The OPECST acts as an intermediary between the political world and the world of research. It must listen to researchers and requests authorized opinions. In order to carry out its task, the OPECST is assisted by a scientific council reflecting the diversity of scientific and technological disciplines in its composition. The council is made up of 24 leading figures selected on the basis of their expertise.
III. – The study programmes
1. – The appointment of the rapporteurs
Any matter referred to the OPECST leads to the appointment of one or two rapporteurs, always selected from among the members of the OPECST. Most study programmes bring together an MP and a senator. OPECST also tries to match rapporteurs so that the left and the right wings are included, and both genders too. This is called ‘triple parity’ matching.
2. – The feasibility study
Once appointed, the rapporteurs first make a feasibility study. The study aims to provide a snapshot of knowledge on the topic, determine possible research avenues, consider the possibility of obtaining relevant results in the required time period and determine the necessary means to start a study programme.
The rapporteurs then submit the conclusions of the feasibility study, together with methodological remarks, to the members of the OPECST. At that stage, they either suggest that the study be closed (this happens very rarely), propose modifications the extent of the study (a study first dealing with biofuels was thus extended to consider prospects for the development of non-food agricultural products), or, much more frequently, that a study programme be set up and lead to the drawing up of a report.
3. – The drafting of a report
The rapporteurs hold hearings to enable them to gather, without exclusion, all opinions from concerned people and organizations. They can also travel in France or abroad to inspect installations and firms connected with their work.
Throughout the study, the rapporteurs are assisted by a parliamentary civil servant and, if need be, by a study group made up of specialists from outside parliament. They can hire French or foreign freelance experts and consultants for further investigation into specific items. They can gather the opinions of trade unions, professional bodies, and organizations for the protection of the environment or consumers.
However, OPECST reports are not restricted to setting out the experts’ points of view. Their conclusions are the work of parliamentarians and may go beyond merely informing, by including suggestions and recommendations.
If the rapporteurs deem it necessary, public hearings open to the media are organized to gather and hear the opinions of leading figures and organizations wishing to express themselves on the subject under discussion.
The rapporteurs draft the report. The minutes of their hearings may then be annexed to the report.
4. – The rapporteurs’ powers
The OPECST rapporteurs have powers identical to those of budget reporters of the financial standing committee: they may therefore carry out direct investigations on any state agency and have access to any available document, with the exception of those dealing with military matters or state security. In addition, if they encounter difficulties in exercising their mission, the OPECST may request that it be given the prerogatives granted to parliamentary committees of inquiry.
5. – The publication of reports
At the end of their work, the rapporteurs submit their draft report and their conclusions to the members of the OPECST. The conclusions are presented in such a way that they can be used directly for legislative work or budget discussions. Members of the OPECST must decide whether they will publish the report and all or part of the minutes of the hearings and the contributions by the experts. In this respect, the OPECST’s decisions are mostly unanimous: consensus decisions are one of the office’s main features.
The documents from the OPECST, which make up a special collection within all the parliamentary reports, are on sale at the National Assembly and Senate bookshops and at the State Editing Department, and are available on each assembly’s website.
Since its creation, the OPECST has published more than 170 reports. Table 10.1 lists selected recent investigations.
IV. – The OPECST ’s influence and international activities
The OPECST has progressively become an acknowledged instrument of parliamentary action. Several laws make provision either for it
to be informed of or or to participate in the appointment of representatives of the parliament to various bodies, or for its representation, by its president or one of its members, on the boards of directors of various organizations.
As part of the control activity of parliament, OPECST has become more and more involved in French science policy. The office has been asked for advice about a national research strategy plan and about encouraging a new policy organization based on five large ‘thematic alliances’.
Once the Investments for the Future programme was launched, OPECST first connected it to the ‘thematic alliances’ organization and then assessed the first outcomes of the programme.
Every year, the OPECST organizes several conferences and seminars, either in relation to one of its reports or on other scientific or technological subjects.
The office also contributes to the development of international parliamentary relations and takes part in various congresses and events, in particular at the European level. Thus, over the past few years, we have seen the setting up of an information and exchange network, the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment, bringing together the European organizations responsible for conducting scientific and technological assessments for national parliaments and the European Parliament.