Nanojury UK – the final verdict

Nanojury UK – the citizens’ jury on Nanotechnology that has been deliberating over the summer – delivered its verdict on Wednesday at an event in London. In full, there were twenty recommendations which attracted various degrees of support. But at the launch, four jurors attended in person, and they singled out four recommendations which they felt the whole jury felt most strongly about. After presenting these four key recommendations, they took questions from a large audience, and then the sponsors of the process gave their reactions.

The four recommendations were:
1. Health – nano-enabled medicines had big potential for reducing the time people spent in hospital. These should be developed via improved funding mechanisms and should be available without discrimination on the National Health Service.
2. The Government should support those nanotechnologies that bring jobs to the UK by investment in education, training and research.
3. Scientists should learn to communicate better – some of the jury felt sometimes patronised, they didn’t like all the long words scientists used, and scientists didn’t always agree with each other.
4. Products containing manufactured nanoparticles should be labelled in plain English.

The questions threw up some interesting insights. The most direct and straightforward came from the Guardian reporter – after this process, what was their general impression of nanotechnology. All four were in agreement; if safety could be assured, they were very positive. Another journalist asked them what they felt were the most exciting applications, and again they agreed on medicine and renewable energy. A Greenpeace person asked them a rather leading question about whether they would agree with the proposition that he claimed many scientists held, that if the public only understood the science they would support it. They answered this by saying that as they learned about the science, they got excited about it and talked about it to their friends. One juror told a story about how his daughter was at school and the class was asked about nanotechnology. She said “oh, yes, I know loads about nanotechnology”, to which the teacher replied along the lines of “how can you know about that, your dad’s just a taxi driver”, to which she was able to say that her father was taking part in this citizens jury and was telling her all about it.

One thing was absolutely clear – the jurors were tremendously positive about the process itself. They even managed to say some positive things about the scientists involved, despite conclusion 3. One juror rather accurately identified the problem with the upstream nature of the process – commenting that “some of this stuff is so far ahead that even the scientists aren’t sure where it is going”. This positive view chimed well with the independent evaluation made by Nick Pidgeon, a social scientist from UEA who assessed the ill-fated GM nation project. His view was also very positive, and he noted as good features the very representative jury, the very strong multi-stakeholder oversight panel, and the direct link into government. He noted as a challenge for upstream approach precisely the problem that the juror had pointed out.

From the sponsors, Mark Welland, from the Cambridge Nanotechnology IRC, talked a lot about the importance of the integrity of the process, and pronounced himself very satisfied with this. Doug Parr, from Greenpeace, sounded a slight air of disappointment. He didn’t think the recommendations reflected the richness of the discussions, he noted the importance of discussing, beyond pure technology, the wider issues of economics and the wider disconnects between science, government, industry and the public. He noted that there had been no mention of the idea of a moratorium on the new technology. I should note here, of course, that Jim Thomas, of the ETC group, which has been calling for a moratorium, was one of the witnesses and presented the case for one to the jury.

For the Government, the reaction was given by Adrian Butt, Chair of the Nanotechnology Issues Dialogue Group, the multi-department body set up to coordinate nanotechnology policy across government. He gave an explicit commitment to table the recommendations in the policy meetings of the NIDG and report back the outcome of discussions. He seemed really rather pleased with the outcome, which he took as being not far from endorsing the approach the government was taking. Nonetheless, he did exercise a certain amount of “expectations management” about how seriously the government would take this. In his words, “the results of this kind of exercise will not by themselves directly determine policy, but will provide social intelligence on the wider environment in which policy is made”

For nanobusiness, Barry Park, COO of Oxonica, expressed broad comfort with the balanced tone of the recommendations.

What of my personal recollections and feelings? I found it one of the most stressful things I’ve done in my career. I have massive admiration for Becky Willis, who chaired the oversight panel and kept the whole thing together in the face of what seemed at times overwhelming centrifugal forces (I composed one unsent resignation letter, and I suspect I wasn’t the only one who came close to walking out on the whole thing). The facilitators have immense power in this kind of exercise, and I ended up with immense respect for the professional effectiveness of Tom Wakeford and his team. But Tom has his own strong political views, which as he himself conceded in his own self-critique, he doesn’t always rigorously exclude from the process, and these aren’t calculated to make life easy for the scientists. It would be impossible for me not to take the criticisms of scientists communication skills personally, but I honestly don’t think the scientific witnesses should have done anything differently. I think the jurors got a very honest, unspun and unvarnished impression of the science, and in return I found the interactions with the jurors very rewarding.

At the end of it all, one thing that is disappointing was the very low level of press coverage – this perfunctory piece in the Guardian was the only thing in the nationals. There are some mitigating circumstances for the lack of press interest – the fact that the Guardian was the media sponsor limited the appeal for other papers, while the Guardian itself basically lost interest as a result of the decision to drop its weekly science section when the paper relaunched as a near-tabloid. But I can’t help feeling that there would have been a lot more coverage if the result had been different. There were approving words in an editorial in this weeks Nature (subscription required). Its conclusion is a good place to finish: “The results of the citizens’ jury suggest that nanotechnology is not perceived as a serious threat to the values of anyone but die-hard anti-technologists”.

One Response to “Nanojury UK – the final verdict”

  1. Wes Du Charme says:

    Richard,

    I just want to express my appreciation for the effort you have made to keep us all informed. It is very encouraging to see that a dialogue between scientists and citizens can lead to what seems to be a productive exchange of ideas and information. From the other side of the pond, I say bravo.