Nanotechnology Engagement Group

I was in London on Monday for the first meeting of the Nanotechnology Engagement Group (NEG), a body funded by the UK government to coordinate activities around public engagement and the discussion of social and ethical issues in the context of nanotechnology. The establishment of the body was announced in a rather low-key way in the summer, when the government issued its draft strategy public engagement on nanotechnologies. The group is being run by the think-tank Involve, and I’m chairing it.

Here are a few first impressions, mostly of the potential pitfalls that it’s easy to imagine this enterprise falling into. The first is that it might cement the trend already identified by Demos, and contribute to a simultaneous professionalization and marginalization of the public engagement field. One can easily imagine NEG developing as a forum in which the professionals cheerfully discuss at length the methodological advantages of citizens’ juries against consensus conferences or focus groups, while failing to make any real impact either on the development of science policy or on the wider public discourse about technology as it’s carried out through the media.

The second is the tension that exists between the idea of public engagement and the idea of “engaging stakeholders”. A very popular way of doing some sort of wider consultation about something like technology is to assemble a bunch of “stakeholders” – regulators, industry groups, consultancy organisations, and advocacy groups. I have deep worries about the representativeness of such groups on all sides. There’s an unwillingness of the private sector to put its collective head above the parapet, on the one hand, and on the other there’s a tendency to assume that NGOs, sometimes representing very narrow constituencies, have a mandate to represent the concerns of a wider public. It’s tempting to view the results of such consultations as being much more representative than they are; when so many people are unwilling or unable to speak the voice of anyone who is willing and motivated to say anything at all ends up with far too much weight. This, to my mind, is one of the main strengths of processes like citizens’ juries – done well, you should get something that represents the views of the public much more accurately than an advocacy group.

Finally, there is the question of what the public, in these engagement exercises, are actually being asked to decide on. The drawback of this kind of upstream engagement is that it is not clear what the outcomes of the technology might be. Maybe we need to start doing some serious scenario construction to try and present a range of plausible futures to focus the discussion down a bit.

All these issues come into sharp focus with the launch of the findings of Nanojury UK (see here for previous reports on this), which took place today at the headquarters of the Guardian. I’ll be writing my impressions about the launch event tomorrow.