Why we struggle with nano public engagement

Kristin: I have been reflecting on my trip to Europe in September 2009 to explore some of the issues and approaches to public engagement around nanotechnology and emerging technologies. A guest blog by David Gutson of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University on 2020 Science stated that “…public engagement has not been implemented as robustly as it might have been.”

Through the various interviews, there were five observations about the state of nanotechnology public engagement, all of which raise crucial questions for how the Australian public might be involved in nanotechnology and other emerging or enabling technologies. My list looks like this:

  • That we still struggle with the definition of nanotechnology and that impacts the purpose and outcomes for public engagement
  • That OH&S issues are dominating public engagement in nanotechnology
  • That there are different models that might be adopted, based on the different approaches in the UK, France and The Netherlands
  • That there are bigger issues around public engagement with respect to emerging technologies which frame the debate around nanotechnology
  • That there appears to be some disconnect between eduction, public engagement and innovation around emerging technologies

Let’s look at these observations in more detail:

1. That we still struggle with the definition of nanotechnology and that impacts the purpose and outcomes for public engagement

Various definitions of nanotechnology give rise to different ways of interpreting the problem. If we rely on a definition that refers to an enhanced understanding of chemistry, biology and physics, then nanotechnology becomes incremental development and there seems little reason to involve the public above what they would already be involved in in terms of general science engagement.

If the definition includes the change in properties that occur at the nanoscale, then those different properties inform the debate. The specificity around various nanoparticles become a focus, hence the focus on risk and nano-safety. Here nanotechnology is described to the public in terms of its applications and specific contexts in order to understand how they are different. This includes the forums run by VivAgora, and meets our own experiences in discussing nanotechnology and how the AccessNano resource has been structured.

If however, the importance of nanotechnology for the future is because of the potential transformational shift in technology and its effects on society because of convergence with biotechnology, IT and cognitive science then the issues must become broader. A focus on the risks of nanotechnology do not serve the broader issues as discovered by the Rathenau Institute and what the Responsible Nano Forum (now Matter) also seeks to do.

Furthermore, the question as to why the general public would wish to be involved in the debates around nanotechnology is important. The response to the Dutch calls for public engagement grants remains to be seen, but the the lack of comments on Nano & Me website and the initial difficulty VivAgora had in involving environmental NGOs are two examples of the difficulties in engaging the public.

2. That OH&S issues are dominating public engagement in nanotechnology

Another question we need to address is why are we engaging the public on the risk debate? It seems that instead of asking the public broader questions about their appetite or acceptance for emerging technologies, in some way we are already assuming nanotechnology development and talking about the details of how, rather than why. This then affects the type of public engagement we pursue, and the degree of expertise that becomes relevant in framing any debate.

Furthermore, there has been criticism on relying on risk and regulation to drive innovation in national strategies including in the UK and The Netherlands. The issue of safety and risk and its role in public engagement is a recurring one.

3. That there different models that might be adopted, based on the different approaches in the UK, France and The Netherlands

Centrally-driven public engagement strategies were different in the UK, France and The Netherlands.

In the UK, upstream public engagement has been a focus, in part due to GM and mad cow disease experiences. Although the GFC may affect future funded activities. Recently, the national nanotechnology strategy has focused on the risk and regulation aspects of technology development.

In France, the debate on nanotechnology has historically been framed by protests in Grenoble in 2005, and more recently protests around the national nanotechnology debates. There is a tendency for much regulation to be state-driven, more state-owned companies.

And in The Netherlands , there was centrally organised and funded research which then set the political agenda for innovation. Public dialogue followed this and there was some requirements for social dialogue through the NanoNed innovation initiative. There is some new funding for groups who want to discuss issues and engage the public.

4. That there are bigger issues around public engagement with respect to emerging technologies in general which frame the debate around nanotechnology

A key question discussed was how important is nanotechnology compared with the broader concept of emerging technologies, especially when engaging the public.

Do we start with the technology or the future implications? In discussions with Matter and with the Rathenau Institute, it was suggested that an alternative would be to start at the consumer or public end of the debate and then explore some of the enabling technologies that might be used to bring these alternative futures into place. This works with an examination future foods, but also in discussing some of the convergence issues with artificial life and geoengineering.

The difficulty is in engaging people beyond cultural norms and archetypes.

5. That there appears to be some disconnect between eduction, public engagement and innovation around emerging technologies

It was observed that there was very little in the COMS09 conference about public engagement, and very little about innovation in the discussions on public engagement, which tended to focus on risk and people’s values around technology development. David Gutson’s post asks whether public engagement is for the benefit of the public or the benefit of nanotechnology. I suggest we need a more integrated and holistic approach if the issues are to be reasonably covered.

Comments

  1. Agree with what you say here Kristen, nice post. I think a lot of the ‘framing’, comes from the ‘why’ bit. So ‘future foods’ type work can be done in advance to inform development, but HSE is done to understand how scared we are about uncertainty. However, there is a disconnect also between

    A couple of issues I am wrestling with are:

    1 what is done with this information when we have it and does it have any influence whatsoever? In my experience, people in government change, the findings get put in a drawer and often forgotten. It is also not connected to the people doing the work, so again easily ignored by researchers, policy makers in different areas.

    2 Who’s benefit it is for as you and David have asked, and what would we do if we were to do one which was specifically to benefit the public?

    BTW, part of the reason for so few comments on Nano&me was because it never really went to the public! It was a pilot and no money for publicity, so only really went to opinion formers. I didn’t dare do a mass publicity exercise without professional help as it is not something to be undertaken lightly and no-one would fund it!

  2. Thank you for this great article.

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by kristinalford: Why we struggle with nano & public engagement – some thoughts from my report on interview in UK/Europe http://bit.ly/bju1u0

  2. […] Engagement Reported Kristin: A month ago I posted this blog on ‘Why we struggle with public engagement‘, detailing the findings from several interviews I conducted in Europe during September. […]

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