Tuesday’s launch event for two new reports in public engagement in nanotechnology – All Talk? Nanotechnologies and public engagement was a packed and interesting day. I didn’t, though, go home in an entirely optimistic frame of mind, and that wasn’t just because of the very real difficulties I had travelling through the flooded English midlands.
The morning was spent in presentations of and discussions arising from the two reports. The Demos project, Nanodialogues (the full report can be downloaded here) is presented as a series of experiments in public engagement, and that’s a very apt way of putting it. Each of the four activities addressed a very different aspect of science policy, and managed to throw a great deal of light on areas that have in the past stayed out of sight. The most straightforward of these exercises concerned a relatively simple and bounded policy choice – should iron nanoparticles be used in environmental remediation? An exercise carried out with the research councils proved problematic, illustrating just how strange and remote the nuts and bolts of government science funding procedures can be when looked at with fresh eyes. The third project was carried out in Zimbabwe, and very graphically illustrated the practical gulf between the rhetoric one sees about how nanotechnology might help the developing world and the reality of the problems that exist there. The fourth experiment found away into the notoriously closed world of business, bringing together focus groups and corporate researchers at the laboratories of Unilever, the multinational behind household brands such as Sunsilk shampoo, Dove soaps, Ponds skincreams and Surf soap-powder. Here what was explored was the tension between the company’s view that they are innovating to respond to consumer demand, and the slightly different view of some of the public that “innovation is not following their needs; it is imagining their wants, fulfilling them and leading them somewhere.”
The final report of the Nanotechnology Engagement Group summarises lessons learnt from the variety of public engagement exercises that have taken place in the UK around nanotechnology in the last couple of years. The report highlights some of the difficulties that have been encountered. Sometimes there has been a lack of clarity of the purpose of public engagement, which has led to frustrations and disappointments by participants and sponsors. It has sometimes not been clear how the results of public engagement feed back into policy. But, being more positive, there is a great deal of evidence from participants of how rewarding these exercises can be. This was underlined at the event by presentations from two of the members of the public who were involved. Bill Cusack, from Halifax, who took part in Nanojury UK, and Deborah Perry, from London, who took part in Nanodialogues, both spoke eloquently about the rewards of taking part, as well as some of the frustrations they felt.
One of the recommendations of the NEG report was that the institutions who commission or participate in public engagement exercises should always be prompt in making a public response. The Research Councils who supported Nanodialogues have made a response, which can be read here. I’m quite optimistic that EPSRC, at least, will be responding in a quite substantial way, and will be developing further public engagement activities that will be feeding directly into policy decisions.
If, after the morning session, I was feeling reasonably optimistic that despite well-recognised difficulties, there was a consensus developing about how to incorporate public engagement into scientific policy making, by the end of the afternoon sessions, “Where next for public engagement in science” and “A new social contract for science?”, I was left thinking that this optimism might be naive and Pollyannish. It became clear that there were some strongly held views in opposition, from both sides, to this comfortable position. On the one hand, there was the view that Science itself provides clear answers to policy questions; for example, given the correct information the need for GM food to feed the world’s population and nuclear energy to power it would become obvious. As for policy, we have a representative democracy to ensure that the people’s views are represented; it is politicians, not opinion polls, who ought to decide these issues, and public engagement is really just a question of the print and broadcast media informing people. On the other hand, we heard that the direct action and controversy-stoking of the social movements are the only way that opposing views can properly be heard, and that irrationality is a legitimate tool in the face of the entrenched hegemony of technoscience.
So, by the end, I was feeling rather lonely in my menshevik position of looking for moderate progress within the bounds of societal and institutional constraints. I wasn’t the only one to be feeling uncomfortable, though, as this account of the meeting from industrial scientist turned policy maker David Bott makes clear.