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Human Genome News, Mar.-Apr. 1995; 6(6)

Alternatives in Technological Controversies

A conference on "Which Scientist Do You Believe? Process Alternatives in Technological Controversies" attracted almost 40 people from the United States and Canada to Concord, New Hampshire, on October 6-7, 1994. The meeting was organized by Arthur Kantrowitz (Dartmouth College) and Thomas Field [Franklin Pierce Law Center (FPLC)] to consider the resolution of technical disputes in a variety of settings. It was funded partially by the Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues component of the DOE Human Genome Program.

Presentation topics included processes for resolving medical controversies [Itzhak Jacoby (Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences)], the need to separate scientific facts from social values in public controversies (Kantrowitz), congressional regulations on risks to humans and the environment [Dalton Paxman (Congressional Office of Technology Assessment)], DNA evidence in the courtroom [Albert Scherr (FPLC)], and nontechnical input in framing scientific issues [Kristin Schrader-Frechette (University of South Florida)].

Interest was particularly strong in the admissibility of DNA trial evidence. Only recently has the use of DNA "fingerprints" been possible, and basic issues concerning their admissibility are being resolved. As with other technologies, legislators, judges, and regulatory personnel will have to sort out competing claims of equally qualified scientists and expert witnesses.

The conference also devoted a great deal of attention to negotiation and to mediation and arbitration by neutrals regarding the rights and obligations of the parties. These procedures are known as alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Rena Steinzor (University of Maryland) credited ADR--in particular, a skilled mediator--and the sponsorship of a private foundation in settling a conflict over major environmental legislation. She also stated that excluding public authorities and their representatives from negotiations had been helpful in reaching agreement among very divergent private stakeholders.

Norman Balmer (Union Carbide Corporation) and Field discussed ADR in patent disputes and recent federal legislation encouraging regulatory use of ADR. For example, mediation received little attention 20 years ago but now has become popular in a number of settings and warrants even more use. Balmer emphasized that ADR has the advantage of minimizing litigation expense and resolving disputes relatively quickly.

One option that received considerable attention was the "Science Court," which could be used in legislative, regulatory, and court settings to allow resolution of technical issues by technical people. In this procedure, which was first proposed more than 25 years ago, competing sides would present their cases to a technically trained, neutral panel for an informed decision based on merit. Because similar approaches have been tried in the United States and Canada without dire results, many earlier concerns have diminished. No Concord conferee voiced fundamental opposition to the concept, and several indicated the need for renewed consideration.

Participants made no recommendations as a group but individually suggested that mechanisms for resolving technical components of public controversies could use improvement; several agreed to found a multidisciplinary association to address this and related topics. A conference summary, including presented papers, will appear in the Spring issue of Risk, which will be available in mid-May (Fax: 603/224-3342, tfield@fplc.edu).

Thomas Field, FPLC

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Human Genome Program, U.S. Department of Energy, Human Genome News (v6n6).

Human Genome Project 1990–2003

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