A grand day out

I’ve been to London today, for two meetings, both about nanotechnology but with rather contrasting flavours. The morning saw me at a large TV production company, which is planning a three part series on nanotechnology for a national broadcaster. In the afternoon I was at the Department of Trade and Industry, with a couple of social science colleagues, including Stephen Wood, my coauthor on the ESRC report The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology. We were meeting the civil servant in charge of the DTI nanotechnology agenda, together with Hugh Clare, who is the director of the Micro/Nanotechnology network that the DTI is trying to establish with its 90 million, to discuss how they would like to see the social science research agenda shaped.

This was an interesting glimpse into government thinking. While the Treasury lives by a rigorous creed of free markets and non-intervention, the DTI is doing its best to formulate and implement what’s very reminiscent of an old-fashioned industrial policy, using government-sponsored innovation to rescue the small remnants of the UK’s manufacturing industry, for which these mandarins showed rather a touching nostalgia. What worries me is the central problem of how you define nanotechnology. The DTI is very keen on network building, but these networks are self-selecting and not necessarily truly representative. If you put together a network, how do you know that these are the companies and organisations that are genuinely developing and using nanotechnology to make new products and businesses, rather than those that find nanotechnology a useful label for marketing or fund-raising purposes? Here’s where the kind of network analysis that social scientists are building could be really helpful.

How about the public perception issue? This is something that clearly deeply bothers the DTI, and there was palpable relief at the Royal Society report; clearly they were very comfortable with the modest extensions of regulation proposed in the report, and they seemed pretty confident that the government would simply accept the report and implement it in full. They’re seriously worrying about over-regulation driving not just manufacturing but research overseas, and they cite the example of the relocation of animal experimentation to Hungary. But again, I don’t sense much confidence about what to do with the public perception issue. Clearly no-one in government believes in the so-called “deficit model” of public engagement anymore. (This is the idea if that you simply explained everything clearly enough the scales would fall from the public’s eyes and they would eagerly embrace whatever new technology you were offering). Old fashioned views about risk analysis won’t wash either – you can produce as many risk tables as you like to demonstrate that crossing the road is quantitatively more dangerous than using a nuclear powered toaster to make your genetically modified toast, but if this conflicts with people’s deep intuitions they’ll trust the intuition.

I think it all boils down to visions, and this where I connect with my morning meeting. A company making a TV program for prime-time isn’t going to devote three slots to potential improvements in supply chain management, better impact toughness for engineering thermoplastics, and new avenues in textile treatment. It’s the big visions that are going to make popular TV, and at the moment its the environmentalists, on one hand, and the Drexlerites, on the other, that have those visions, deeply uncomfortable as those visions are to the sober people in government departments and the nanobusiness world. But people need those big narratives to make sense of and get comfortable with technological change, and if people don’t like the narratives that are on offer they’d better develop a compelling one of their own.