Science and Public Affairs

The summer edition of Science and Public Affairs, a magazine published by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, has some interesting articles about the debate around the social implications of nanotechnology (when I looked the website hadn’t been updated to the latest edition, so I don’t know which of these articles will be available online).

There’s a group of three short pieces of reaction to the UK Government’s response to the Royal Society Report “Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties”, one from me, one from the ETC group’s Jim Thomas, and one from the Royal Society’s study’s chair, Ann Dowling. The first two of these will already be familiar to readers of Howard Lovy’s Nanobot (if I was a proper blogger I’d probably insert something here about the mainstream media struggling to keep up).

More timely is an article by Nick Pidgeon and Tee Rogers-Hayden comparing the way public engagement was handled in the debate about genetic modification with what’s been done with nanotechnology so far. Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden are social scientists based at the University of East Anglia; Pidgeon was the social scientist member of the Royal Society panel and both were involved in evaluating the success or otherwise of GM Nation?, the large scale public engagement programme run by the UK government on the subject of agricultural biotechnology. They found a lot to criticise about GM Nation; the debate was held too late, with commercialisation imminent and public attitudes already polarised, and the participants weren’t representative of the population as a whole.

In the nanotechnology debate, some of these problems can be avoided – the process has been begun much earlier in the development cycle, and it is clear that public opinion is not yet polarised to anything like the degree seen with GM. But the upstream engagement we are beginning to see with nanotechnology will bring its own difficulties, precisely because some of the applications and implications of the technology are not yet clear, and because broader issues of a much more political nature (who controls technology? who benefits? who do we trust?) become more prominent.

But the article highlights an absolutely central issue with upstream engagement processes, that I’m currently spending a lot of time thinking about in the context of Nanojury UK (I should note that Pidgeon is on the steering committee of this project, and Rogers-Hayden has been observing a number of the sessions). This is the crucial role of information about the science. How can one ensure that the participants of the process have good quality information, while ensuring that the way the information is presented doesn’t introduce bias? The credibility of the process depends on all sides of the debate feeling that their views have been fairly represented, but there’s a danger that this will lead to potential conflicts between holders of fundamentally different views about the status of scientific expertise.

Why, one might ask, do we not simply issue the participants in these processes with a pack containing all the serious and well-considered documents that have been produced on nanotechnology, such as the Royal Society report? Quite apart from the important point that most of the population hasn’t learnt to love turgid chunks of text in the way that academics do, there’s a danger here of too much information. I was interested to read David Berube’s sceptical comments on a consensus conference held at Madison, Wisconsin earlier this year. My feeling on reading these conclusions is that the participants, presented with such eminently reasonable documents as the Royal Society report, simply agreed with them, as well they might do. I’d hope, though, that the real value of this kind of public deliberative process would come from the new and unexpected insights that people who haven’t been previously been deeply immersed in the debate might come up with.

2 Responses to “Science and Public Affairs”

  1. Richard Jones says:

    I think this is a winge set off by a specific spark – the BBSRC, the research council giving out money for biology, is about to start insisting that all scientists getting grants from the BBSRC commit some time to public dialogue. In fact, I probably agree with the writer that this isn’t a good idea; public engagement activities aren’t actually at all easy to do, not least because, just as the writer says, many scientists are (shockingly, in my view) ill-informed about areas of science outside their own expertise. In fact I can think of a great many scientific colleagues who I think should absolutely not be allowed to appear in front of any public audience. But, as he says “Of course there are plenty of issues involving science that are worthy of public discussion and debate … the list is endless.” So he agrees that someone should be doing the debating, he’s just too busy to do it himself. But then he says: “Many of us are frustrated … because public debate is occurring but no one is listening to the facts.” Well, if he’s not prepared to take the time to inform the public debate with the facts, then I don’t think he’s in much of a position to complain.