Nanojury UK – the first week

A citizens jury on nanotechnology, sponsored by the IRC in Nanotechnology at the University of Cambridge, Greenpeace, and The Guardian newspaper, has got under way in earnest this week. I wrote here about its launch.

The jury is taking place in Halifax, a large industrial town in West Yorkshire. Names chosen at random from the electoral rolls were invited to apply to take part, and about 20 names from those who so applied were selected in a way that gives a group whose diversity is representative of their community. The jurors sign up for 20 two and a half hour evening sessions – two a week for ten weeks – so it’s a big commitment. The first 10 sessions are on a topic that the jurors themselves choose, and the remaining 10 sessions are about nanotechnology. Having spent five weeks talking about youth crime, they are working well together as a group and they understand the process pretty well.

Wednesday evening was spent in a general discussion about technologies and their impacts, both positive and negative, together with a very brief, scene-setting introduction to nanotechnology. The first proper witness session was held last night, on the theme of nanotechnology in medicine. The witness was Beatrice Leigh. Bea was formerly Head of New Technology for the drug company GlaxoSmithKline; she now runs her own (somewhat smaller) drug discovery company. I thought Bea did a great job, giving a very clear picture of why nano will be important in the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries (and, on the way, not being shy about the current shortcomings and difficulties of big pharma). After her half-hour long statement, the jurors spent some time by themselves formulating what they felt were the key questions, and then Bea and I did our best to answer them. This part of the evening provided clear proof that you don’t need expert knowledge to be able to ask penetrating questions.

Next week the jurors will get to see a rather different take on nanotech – next witness is Jim Thomas of the ETC group.